Interview by John Silva | Photo by Nick Zimmer
For the past 15 years, Jeff Rosenstock has been building a name for himself in the DIY scene, but only in the last couple years has he begun to break into the general market. After SideOneDummy Records put out Rosenstock’s third solo album, 2016’s WORRY., his name started appearing everywhere. USA Today named it the best record of the year, and his songs began showing up in places one wouldn’t expect to hear a DIY punk musician, from college radio stations to Starbucks lobbies.
Despite the media attention he’s been receiving, Rosenstock won’t gloat about his recent success. He’s still the same self-deprecating, passionate, music-loving punk rocker who fans across the U.S. and abroad have come to adore.
His latest album, POST-, received a surprise digital release through Rosenstock’s own label, Quote Unquote Records, on Jan. 1 and is set to drop on vinyl via Polyvinyl Records on March 23.
First of all, why did you decide to release POST– as a surprise record?
You know, it just felt like what I wanted to do. It’s hard to say. I think, once I was working on it, it just felt like a New Year’s Day record, which is kind of a weird, intangible thing to say, but that’s kind of how it felt to me. I thought it would be cool to just put something out and not do a whole thing. We had done that for the last two records, where we did the singles and the lead-up and the hype and all that stuff—and that’s fine, that’s cool, but I just wanted to put something out there.
It was kind of weird, ‘cause I had no idea whether that was going to be completely fucking up the entire momentum that our band has, which is something that—you know, we’ve all been in different bands for a long time, and that’s not something that any of our other bands really ever have going. So, I think it’s just my natural instinct to always do something that’ll maybe shoot me in the foot.
And, I guess, just the more I thought about it, I was like, “Oh, yeah, this would be fucking sick!” It just seemed like a really fun thing to do instead of trying to cram it down people’s throats, which I feel like—honestly, this is the third record I’ve had out with this band in a very short amount of time, and we’ve definitely been getting more media attention than I’m used to. I feel like I’m at the point where I’m sick of myself [laughs]. So, it was just like, “Let’s not do any of that and not make anybody have to read even more about us, and me, before the record comes out.”
I don’t know. There’re a bunch of reasons. It just felt like the thing to do—that’s the most basic reason.
Was it hard to keep it on the down-low? Did you think it would potentially get out that you were planning this surprise release?
Yeah, it was hard. I think a lot of people knew about it. I know Talia [Miller], who does PR for us [with Brixton Agency] and is also my friend, we were talking about it, and she’s like, “OK, so can I send this to these writers?” I’m like, “No, you can’t send it to fucking anybody, ‘cause it’s not gonna be done until three weeks before we release it, and I don’t want anybody to know that it’s gonna be coming out.” I think she did send it to people, but those people were really good at keeping a secret. I realized as I’ve been doing press for this record that people are like, “Yeah, I heard that it was coming out,” and I was like, “Oh. You heard it was coming out?”
But that said, we also had fuckin’ bigmouths about it too, so I think I’m just really happy that [people who] knew about it didn’t spill the beans and didn’t have as big a mouth as I did about it. I feel like it was probably the same for my bandmates. But when anybody told me, “Hey, I heard you’re going to the studio,” I’d be like, “Who the fuck told you that? Where’d you hear that? What? No! Nothing’s happening!” I feel like anybody who knew got the preamble of: “If you tell anybody about this, it’s going to ruin my year. So, do you wanna fuck my entire year up? Or can you do a better job at keeping a secret than I can?”
Polyvinyl is going to release the physical copies of POST-, but you still put it up as a free download through Quote Unquote. You did the same thing for your two SideOneDummy Records releases. Do you only work with record labels that are going to accommodate that?
Yeah, I’m only working with [labels] who will accommodate that. I don’t see any reason not to do it, from a label standpoint. Also, that’s a big part of me. Not just Quote Unquote Records, but the idea of, like, if somebody wants to hear the record and not spend money or doesn’t have money to spend—or they just don’t wanna spend money, whatever, they just wanna hear it—I wanna always be able to have a way to listen to it without any fuckin’ advertising, without anybody trying to force you to spend money or anything like that.
So, that’s something that’s super important to me. I don’t know, maybe when I’m 50 years old, it won’t be important to me anymore, but it’s been important to me for the last 15 years of my life, and I don’t see that changing. I know that the times in my life when I was really living hand to mouth, music is always there for you. It’s there for everybody, and it should be there for people who don’t have the money too. Like, art and stuff is there for everyone. It’s there to make people feel good, hopefully—or make people feel something. And I don’t think that’s something that should be blocked by a paywall in any way. So, it’s sick that Polyvinyl and SideOneDummy were into doing it. That’s a good thing. I’m lucky for that.
At one point, you got pushback from the music industry—not from those specific labels, but just in general—for having that philosophy. At this point, with the internet and everything just being free anyway, have people moved on? Or do you still sometimes get pushback?
No, people have completely moved on. Nobody acts like it’s an insane thing to do anymore, because it’s what everybody does. A lot of people have a Bandcamp page, people have SoundCloud pages and stuff like that. The hip hop world has been releasing free mixtapes for a very long time online. I think that the landscape has changed—which is weird for me, because it’s not like the landscape has moved closer to me or anything like that. I kind of just feel like I’m operating on my own wavelength and doing my own thing. But, I mean, already, it’s like doing it in a way that is, like, financially difficult for artists and stuff like that. So, you know, the industry will find a way to fuck you.
Your rental car got broken into a couple years ago, and your notebook and recorder were stolen along with a lot of your songs. Were any of those songs—besides “Dramamine”—recovered? Are any of those songs on the new album?
Yeah, “USA” is partially some of that stuff. There’s stuff that’s just gone and might resurface someday. “USA,” part of it was on there. And maybe “Melba”? “Melba” was maybe partially on there, and bits and pieces stayed together. “USA” ended up breaking all the way down and turning into a different thing. I’m way happier with the way it turned out, and I’m kind of glad that the original version isn’t there, ‘cause I feel like the lyrics were kinda dumb. It forced me to take a fresh approach to these songs that I had been working on. But once that was gone, that was pretty much it. The song that’s on the SKASUCKS 7” [split], I’m never gonna get back again. That was also something that was on there.
The songs that you recovered, that was just from memory? None of them resurfaced in any way?
Yeah, and I think that’s a good thing. The way I write is that I’ll take an audio note of an idea that I have. Mostly, it’s pretty crude stuff, and if I can go back to it and remember what the feeling was and what the vibe was and it seems catchy—or more so, if it’s something I think about after I’ve done that, that’s kind of the hint to me that a song is good: if it stays in my head. And the thing with the tape recorder is that I was basically trying to do an exercise where the first 10 songs I was working on—no matter what they were—I was gonna try to turn them into something that was good and just see if I could do it.
So, I’m not happy that our car got broken into—that fuckin’ sucks—but it’s a happy accident that the songs that survived in my brain from that tape recorder, I think this is how they’re supposed to go. I think that was a fortunate accident. I did record two hours of a satellite radio thing in Japan, like late ‘50s, early ‘60s J-pop stuff, and I never heard anything like it. It was like listening to music from an alternate reality, and it was awesome. I’m really bummed that shit’s gone, ‘cause that was a cool thing that I really wish I took off there before it got stolen.
Hopefully it turns up somewhere.
No, it’s not gonna turn up! There’s no way it’s gonna turn up. Thank you, but there’s no fuckin’ way. Nobody’s looking for it. The cops aren’t looking for my tape recorder. Like, my guitar got stolen when our van got broken into on tour. The guitar that I spent all of Bomb The Music Industry! with and all of this band with, up until it got stolen. That’s a bigger deal than a tape recorder getting stolen, for me.
It really sucks that this happens to bands. It’s such a common thing.
Yeah, it just keeps making it harder for bands to be out on tour. I have the attitude always of, just, “Fuck it, man, just do it! Just figure it out and go out on tour, and it’ll be crazy, but you’ll be happy you did it.” But the more that van break-ins happen, it’s like, “I don’t know, man. It’s like, every night, I’m risking losing all of my possessions.” It frames it in a very terrifying way.
You’ve gotten a lot more media attention over the past couple years and broken into the mainstream a little bit. Maybe not like Kanye West or whatever, but—
—no, we’re probably about even record sales-wise, me and Kanye. [Laughs]
Yeah, sure [laughs]. But it’s interesting is that your long-term fan base who have been following you since the Bomb days are still huge fans of yours. Ten years ago, when punk bands went more mainstream—like The Gaslight Anthem or Against Me!, for example—their fan bases felt betrayed and stopped supporting them, but it seems like your fans are stoked for your success. Do you think that marks a shift in punk culture, or is that something specific to your fans?
I don’t really know. I think there’s something specific to our fans. They’re nice and really supportive in a great way. It seems like my music means a lot to them, and that encourages me to just keep trying to make really good stuff. I think there is that support from fans—it’s kind of hard to articulate how much that means. And it does feel specific to our fan base; I feel like something special is going on.
But also, like, I’ve been a “punk person” for a while, and I’ve felt betrayed by shit that punk bands have done. As things grow, I’m trying to not do things that I would be upset at if I was a fan. If I am having to do things like that, I just try to be honest and upfront about it and try to, like—not justify it. Well, maybe justify it. Just trying to be like, “Hey, I know this is a weird thing.” Like, maybe if we’re playing a festival—
—like when you told everyone how much you made at the Pitchfork festival?
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s funny. That was a spur of the moment—I don’t know. But not that as much as, like, we played a show at Beat Kitchen the night afterwards, and it was 10 or 12 bucks, or 15 bucks or whatever the hell it was. But just like—try to not get in the way of something growing but still trying to keep true to the stuff that I feel is important. I think that’s probably why fans don’t give us too much shit, because I try to be really honest and upfront about everything that we’re doing. Or I don’t know, or punk culture’s changing, and nobody gives a shit anymore. I guess that’s more it [laughs]. I bet if this was 2002, my fuckin’ tires would be slashed.
It definitely seems like you’ve built a trusting relationship with your fans, and that means a lot.
Thanks. Yeah, it means a lot to me too. ‘Cause I feel like there’s a mutual trust that I can go out on a limb musically. And I feel like—I’m not worried, I’m not concerned that anybody is gonna be like, “Fuck you, you’re a sellout” or “Fuck you, you’re making quiet stuff” or “Fuck you, you’re making loud stuff.” That trust is very freeing.
Your new album dives pretty deep into some depressing real-world shit, from the 2016 presidential election to police brutality. Pretty heavy stuff. Was it depressing to write these songs or was it the opposite, a therapeutic way to process those thoughts via songwriting?
Definitely the second one. It felt therapeutic to process those thoughts. I wouldn’t say it felt good or anything like that, but I feel like if I’m writing lyrics—I don’t know, it’s weird, I kind of always write about dark stuff. That’s just where my brain goes when I’m writing words. I don’t know why, and I try not to do that. The last record, WORRY., was me trying to write a record of love songs and stuff like that, and it ended up being sad as fuck. And [Bomb The Music Industry’s final record] Vacation is a record like that too. It’s just where my brain goes.
I feel like I get in a very dark place when I’m writing, but then, when I’m done writing, I also get to a weird anxious place where I’m just trying to make it not sound stupid. Once I’m in that space, it’s just kind of like, “OK, fuck, yeah, I said the thing that I was trying to say,” and the darkness is not there as much as it probably was when the idea was first coming out and was just kind of this idea of “OK, am I actually fuckin’ saying the thing I’m trying to fuckin’ say here?” I feel like any conversation I have with anybody in the world, like, 90 percent of what comes out of my mouth is stupid and not what I’m trying to actually say. And with the lyrics, I feel like I actually get a chance to say what I’m trying to say.
Even though most of the album has kind of a sad tone, you end with a pretty optimistic song, “Let Them Win.” Did you purposely put that hope-filled song at the end?
That was the last song I wrote for the record. I was writing it, and it originally had a different feel. It was kind of like what you were talking about, where I was writing lyrics and just getting sad. It just felt like a fuckin’ bummer, talking more about all the very bad things.
I was hanging out with a friend, and we were talking about something that just got me thinking about the idea of bullies, in general, and having been somewhat bullied in junior high, high school, that kind of stuff—like everybody is. And that is now just our kind of state as a nation: a lot of us feeling bullied. I was just thinking about the punk songs that I liked when I was a kid that made me feel like I could stand up to bullies. I was just trying to write one of those. I thought that’s something I would like to write about, going back to the thing where I’m just trying not to write the darkest thing that comes into my head all the fucking time. Once I thought of that, it just completely came together, and everything changed. The tone of it changed, the tempo changed. The structure changed. It all became a fuckin’ cool thing that I’m really proud of.
“9/10” was like that too. Once I got the idea in my head that this was gonna be a song about other people who I know are hurting and just to be like, “Hey, I’m hurting too, it’s cool”—I think once that idea happened, that song fell into place. I think both of those are different, lyrically, than what I usually end up falling into.
You were on the “Going Off Track” podcast recently and mentioned feeling some guilt—or maybe not guilt, per se, but feeling kind of weird about the possibility that your music is more popular because of the current political climate. Where do you think that line is—not just for you but for artists, in general—between acknowledging a shitty situation in the world and profiting from it?
Look, I’ll find a way to hate myself about something no matter how good things are going for me. So, I kind of feel like maybe it’s that. But I think the line is whether or not you’re being honest; I think it’s really clear when people aren’t, and it’s really clear when people are. I think that people who are doing it not just because it’s an opportunity to tap into the national consciousness or whatever the fuck—I think people who do it like that, you can tell that their music is not the same as someone who’s just angry and wants to say something. I feel like that’s what makes music good in general: if it feels like somebody’s just trying to get something out, I think that makes good music. There’s pain in all good music, to me.
It’s easy to feel kinda weird about it, because maybe if we didn’t have a fuckin’ prison system that needs to be abolished or a systemically racist police organization that allows for murder with no accountability or a president who is very much a sexist, misogynistic, racist, like, a bad fuckin’ person—and even beyond that stuff, just a weird megalomaniac who won’t shut up and you can’t stop paying attention to as much as you try—I do think if those things weren’t there, then obviously, these records wouldn’t be the same and the records that were like that [wouldn’t be] the ones that people have responded to the most.
But maybe in that alternate reality, I would have been lucky enough to tap into something else that other people are feeling. For me, it’s always a fuckin’ accident, whatever I’m doing. I’m just trying to get the shit in my head down onto a tape.