“I Don’t Know Why.” An Interview with Jeff Rosenstock

Jeff Rosenstock has been making music since 1995. After years spent in a band called The Arrogant Sons of Bitches, 2004 saw the formation of another band, Bomb the Music Industry! In 2006 he founded the first donation-based record label, Quote Unquote Records. A full year before Radiohead’s famous pay-what-you-want release of In Rainbows, Rosenstock was giving away plenty of albums for free while trusting enough people would do the right thing, spread the word, and it would all pay off in the long run. That maxim seems to have worked, because more than ten years later, Rosenstock is bigger than ever. He began recording under his own name around 2012, and after releasing a mixtape and EP, put out three tightly-crafted killer punk rock LPs: We Cool? (2015), WORRY. (2016), and POST- (2018).

His lyrics are always heartfelt and genuine, though where many of his punk peers only go so far as to dig deep into the ins and outs of personal relationships and the occasional local community, Rosenstock often frames his personal concerns on a national level. WORRY. saw him grappling with the police brutality, gentrification and ever-increasing social inequality brought on by late capitalism and often worsened by our online behaviors:

Fuck off, the internet
I’m tired of circling amongst apologists
Who love ignoring the reality
Of unarmed civilians executed publicly
They want you to be a ghost
Born as a data mine for targeted marketing
And no one will listen up until you become a hashtag or a meme

While We Cool? was predominantly concerned with immediately personal concerns, it already presented Rosenstock’s penchant for thinking outside of himself, while admitting to hedonistic and often destructive behavior patterns, especially on the record’s halfway point, ‘I’m Serious I’m Sorry,’ on which he recalls an episode at a party after prom, seeing a girl crying while oblivious to the fact that her boyfriend had just died in a car crash:

I wanted to tell you I know how it feels when
The people you love just start disappearing
Ashamed that you took their presence for granted
But I didn’t want to seem condescending
I didn’t know that you’d relive the moment
The doctor came out with a frown and a clipboard
And you wandered home with no ride feeling stupid
That you thought that this was a regular visit

POST- was released on January 1st of this year without any prior announcement, along with the news that Rosenstock had signed to the independent music label Polyvinyl Records, though the fact of his pay-what-you-want for digital downloads remains unchanged. I caught Rosenstock on tour last month, with Chris Farren opening (they’re releasing a new album together this week, Love in the Time of E-mail through their side project Antarctigo Vespucci, the group’s first LP since 2015).

jeff rosenstock

(Photo by Hiro Tanaka)

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MLP: How’s the tour so far?

Jeff Rosenstock: The tour’s been really great. We’d never been to Spain or Portugal before. It was amazing. We haven’t ever played Switzerland before either. It’s been fun, we’re having a good time, and now we’re here, I’m stoked, I’m excited.

What accounted for getting to expand so much more on this tour?

Like playing all those other places? Well when we go on tour in Europe I feel like every time we’re doing it appeals to our adventurous [sides] to try and find new places we haven’t been to. We want to play everywhere. There are plenty of places in Europe that we haven’t played before this tour so every time we’re over here it’s the one chance we get to say, ‘okay we want to play in Sweden,’ or ‘we want to play in Spain or Portugal.’ We just wanna do that. We want to play for everybody. We want to play in South America too, and hopefully that’ll happen someday too. We’re always trying to throw in a week of shows where we don’t know what the fuck will happen, if anybody will like us, or if anybody will come to the shows. Let’s see these cities, eat some food, and have some good times.

You know someone’s going to come to the show.

No I don’t. You don’t know that someone’s gonna come. You would be surprised, I guess. I’m not surprised.

Pre-sale tickets?

Oh yeah, well five people will most likely come. It hasn’t always been like that, but now that we’ve worked at it for years we can expect five people.

You’ve really been going at it for a lot of years, congratulations.

Thanks, it’s fun. We’re all lucky to still be doing it, for sure.

For POST- [the latest album] I was reading the story of how you went up into the Catskill mountains and cranked out some songs while you had some alone time up there. It sounds so… mythological, the story of how it came to be.

I mean it was the fucking best. I’ve looked into it before, ‘where’s like somewhere where I could go where I could make all the fuckin’ noise in the world and be in the middle of nowhere?’ That doesn’t actually exist and it’s hard to find. Two friends of mine, well their family has a double wide trailer up in the mountains and I asked in the middle of the winter when nobody in their family wants to go up there and they said sure. I had all these songs that I’d been working on, just thinking over and over and piling up and not really a lot of time to demo them or write or expand on them or see where they went or if they were good, because we were on tour so much. When I was at home I was always working so it was great to be able to get the fuck out. It was awesome. A lot came out of it and for the next two or three days, that’s where a bunch of the songs from the record came from, and a few songs that came out on 7” [records] too… there were bad songs that came out of that too. The whole time I was there I was like ‘wow I’m doing this! This is crazy!’

How long were you there?

Like a week, not that long.

It feels long if you’re alone though, no?

I don’t know, not really. It never felt long to me because I was just having a good time. I was waking up in the morning, reading, eating some cereal, drinking some tea, lookin’ out at the snow, playin’ with some synthesizers and then thinking ‘what do I want to do? Do I want to write some lyrics? Do I want to work on these arrangements and figure it all out?’ I really went at my own pace, whereas I feel like usually when I’m demoing it’s in short amounts of time that I’m at home and nobody else is at home, or it seems like an appropriate time to make noise for the neighbors and stuff. I set a guitar in front of the amplifier that I brought up to that house with it feeding back, closed the door and then just walked up to where the next house was at one in the morning, going ‘oh okay it’s cool, you can’t hear it. Alright, sick.’ It was cool to know that [I] could go apeshit writing stuff or recording stuff at one in the morning, as opposed to trying to keep it in a small period of time. I didn’t have good service up there, and I took all the internet shit off my phone, turned the wi-fi off on my computer after looking at the news every day, thinking ‘oh shit’ and then I would just work.

That sounds like the dream.

It was. And I don’t know if I’ll ever get to do that again, but I’m really thankful that I got to do it.

Here’s to hoping, for the next album.

Yeah, sure! I hope so. I’m at that point now where I have eight or nine songs written here [points to his head] but I haven’t purged ‘em out to see if they sounds any good when they’re a real thing. Hopefully. It’s always crazy how once things start getting busy you just run out of time to do that, unless you make the time, like ‘I’ve gotta do all this, I’m gonna do it in this amount of time, it’s gotta go down.’

Do you usually use synths so early on in the writing process?

No I don’t. I had been looking for a Juno 106 for a while, and I had found one on craigslist right before, and picked it up on my way up there. A lot of the synth stuff, like the ambient thing in the first track ‘U.S.A.’ was  just written in the dark after I had loaded everything in through the snow and I was just working my way through the synthesizer. I know what the buttons mean but you don’t know exactly how the chips in each synthesizer sound. I listen to a lot of ambient music. I feel like that’s probably mostly what I listen to, especially at this point in time: it helped me fall asleep when I was on tour, when I was recording, when I was recording other bands, it was just a very busy period, mentally. I’m already anxious and ‘wheels-don’t-stop’ a lot anyway, so I was just trying to make soundscapes with it to see what they sounded like. That part in ‘USA’ really fit in to the rest of it really well and I knew that I wanted that part to be open, but I didn’t know how to do it. Does that answer your question? It’s not usually that early on but I was just excited to play with a new thing. I think on every record there’s something that I’m just excited about; ‘what’s this new way I’m gonna try and do shit?’ It’s always kind of small stuff.

Like glockenspiel?

Well I can say that on WORRY., when I was first writing it, was very much about not trying to write a record for people to be able to mosh to, you know? I think I played a handful of solo shows, I was playing these fast songs…I don’t know, we were playing these shows where people were beating each other up. Not really beating each other up but we were thinking about how we have a bunch of fast songs, what would it be like if I actually tried to write pop songs and stuff like that? And then I felt like I hit a wall because I wanted a concept for it too. Once it was the last bunch of songs in a row, once that made sense, that was kind of ‘the thing’ on that record: ‘okay, how do I make this feel like not just songs going into each other, not just good sequencing on a record, but like one big piece.

That medley section?

Yeah, and We Cool? is like that too, there’s one melody that’s at the beginning, it’s at the end, it’s in the middle, and all of that made me think ‘okay I haven’t really done this stuff before but I want to keep trying to do it.’

[Jeff’s wife briefly interrupted to share some Dr. Pepper cotton candy, something I did not realize could be found in Germany.]

On Vacation [an album by Bomb the Music Industry!]  I felt like I was just feeling weird not putting reverb on things. And on Adults [another album by BtMI!] it was not feeling weird about playing ska. It’s always just really small things that give it a bit of a nudge towards, I don’t know… life. Which is a weird way to put it, but that’s the way it feels to me.

[I take a moment to take in what he’s said and can’t even remember how we got to this answer.]

Yeah. It’s a lot to absorb.

I ramble on and on about music shit because I don’t really know why.

You don’t know why…?

I don’t know why. It’s a hard thing to explain. I don’t know how, I guess. I don’t know how to explain any of it. Whenever I talk about them, I go, ‘oh maybe thats it.’ It’s more like ‘sad guy writes shit down.’ [chuckles] I like music and I like playing and writing it.

The thing about you going and writing those first songs alone was surprising to me because of how often you sing about being scared of being alone. But actually it sounds like it was a really great time.

Yeah, I mean… I think if I’m being honest I was thinking about that but I was also thinking about being scared of being around other people. I think I’m just kind of scared of it all…which isn’t good. And maybe someday I’ll figure all that shit out but…not yet. Music has always been a very good way for me to compartmentalize the parts of myself that I feel are difficult to deal with. It’s a good place for negative energy for me. That’s pretty much it. It’s weird, and it gets complicated when you know that other people will hear it. Because for me that’s not really what it’s about. But I try to just ignore that and keep trying to write because it just helps me process a lot of stuff.

You said you put negative energy out, but in that process we hear it and it becomes positive energy.

That’s cool, and that’s something I’ve realized over the last few years. When that happens it makes me feel nice because then I feel like I don’t just feel like shit all the time for no reason. Not all the time, that’s an exaggeration but times that I feel bad and frustrated, I’m not alone in that mutual feeling. I think the next step is figuring out how to process it and deal with it and talk to people.

I’m guessing before I even ask the question that the answer is ‘not really,’ as POST- was still downloadable for ‘pay what you want,’ but has joining Polyvinyl [records] changed things or helped things at all?

It definitely helped because there are a lot of people there who are really smart, they’re good at their jobs, and really want us to do well. They help us out and it’s awesome. They’re on-board. They’re into what we’re doing and they want it to keep being that and they just want to help us make it good. And that’s the best thing you could hope for in a label. On Sideonedummy it was the same way, and I don’t think I would work with anybody who wasn’t like that, just because I’m too stubborn. Not even too stubborn, I just want to do it the way I’m doing it. I’m not trying to be a famous guy or any shit like that. I’m just trying to write the songs and… I don’t know how to put it, but the whole thing is important to me. All of it is important; the way that we operate, putting stuff out for free, working with our friends and treating people the way we would like to be treated, taking the kinds of bands on tour that we want to take on tour, all of that is important to me. And if anybody wanted it to be a different way, then it would be like ‘this is no longer important to me.’ I don’t feel like I would be able to make it in a way that I would feel comfortable going out there talking to people and playing songs to people. It would feel dishonest, and I’m not about that.

I’d be curious to hear some of your thoughts on things like Spotify and generally the way that most music is accessed and heard these days.

Can you be more specific? That’s a big nut to crack.

A friend of mine is in a couple of bands that are trying to take off, putting all their music on Apple music and Spotify (but also bandcamp). Then this friend put out some solo stuff and was trying to decide about whether to pay money into something like Spotify which doesn’t exactly pay it back out, at least when you’re small. In terms of the way you do things, DIY downloads…

It’s tough because you kind of have to be in there. And you have to play the game a little bit, I guess. Polyvinyl and Sideonedummy like that stuff. And it’s because it gets music out to a lot more people and it’s complicated because Spotify is also the radio now. By saying no to getting paid kind of unfairly, you’re also saying no to being on the radio, which I think no matter how DIY or self-releasing you are, it’s like ‘oh shit my stuff’s on the radio?’ that’s fucking cool. Maybe I’m wrong but I feel like that excites anybody. You want your music to reach people and you want people to find out about it if they would relate to it. So, it’s tricky, but also I don’t think it’s the be-all or end-all of anything. I think that that’s apparent in a lot of underground bands just having cassette tapes and bandcamp and starting to build something in that world. It’s weird, because yeah, everything has to be on Spotify. I have complicated feelings about it but it would make me a hypocrite to talk about it, because we’re on Spotify and we’re definitely happy when more people hear us on [there] because it makes touring better for us. It’s weird, man. I guess the best way to put it is that you don’t ever have to do anything that you don’t want to do when you’re making music and if you’re counting on one thing to be the thing that’s gonna break your band, it’s not gonna happen. Just the concept of trying to break your band… it’s all chance. It’s every bit as important to build stuff with other bands that you feel something similar with and that you can trade shows with, tour, play in other cities, so other people find out about you. That still exists even though Spotify exists. That will never not exist; building friendships and helping each other out. I guess that’s how I feel about it. It’s there, it’s how music is consumed now, and in the end you can’t ignore that fact. And it’s a shame that the music business basically put all their eggs in this basket, which is not going to pay artists well, but of course they did, because it’s the music business and they don’t give a shit about artists. They want to squeeze every last dime until they move on to the next one. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. And it’s fine. And you’ll be fine. That’s what I think.

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