In Conversation: Jeff Rosenstock
If you don’t run in underground punk rock circles, Jeff Rosenstock may not be a name you’ve heard. If you do, then it certainly is. Over two decades, the Long Island native’s contribution to the scene - from his work with ska punk band The Arrogant Sons of Bitches, to the staunchly DIY Bomb the Music Industry!, to the four records under his own name, to his numerous side projects along the way - has been enormous, and his influence equally so.
“My introduction to punk came from hearing Green Day,” Rosenstock says. “That was a mind-breaking thing.”
And when he discovered local hardcore bands playing at Long Island DIY spots, it was an epiphany of its own. “That’s how I figured, ‘Oh wow, you could be from [small Long Island village] Lindenhurst and still have a band, this is crazy.’”
His own musical work has consistently been marked by an anti-capitalist, anti-music industry philosophy, and radical explorations of both the political and the emotional.
In May, after a move from New York to LA, Rosenstock surprise released his fourth solo album, ‘NO DREAM’. True to form, it’s full of anger and frustration with the state of the world, entwined with reflections on his own personal relationships and mental health.
Clash caught up with him about the record, punk, and politics.
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How does it feel to have the record out?
It was a nice week when the record came out. I felt happy to have it done. Then pretty quickly after that, the video of George Floyd being murdered by a police officer by stomping on his neck for eight and a half minutes came out, and shit got real over here. So I haven’t been thinking too much about the record except for when I’m talking to people about it.
What’s interesting is how ‘No Dream’ blends politics with the personal feelings that they invoke.
It just feels natural for me. I think there was a point before [second solo record] ‘Worry’, where it was a conscious decision to not speak entirely personally about things, but to think about the external forces that lead to anxiety and depression. I was getting kinda tired of talking about myself. You think, well, fuck, am I gonna write ten more records about how I’m a sad little boy? So I wanted to write about things that were kind of unignorable, the things that were on my mind non-stop.
Specifically with that record ‘Worry’, I was reacting to actually seeing videos of racist police brutality, instead of just reading about it. Or seeing the waves of gentrification sweep through Brooklyn, and seeing everybody get pushed further out and things get more expensive, and less people being able to afford to live there. And the general consumerism of society, and how capitalism turns the world against each other.
I think that you feel everything all at once. So when I’m writing, I try to be truthful to how I’m feeling. And I think that’s why it ends up being both of those things, because I don’t really go in and go like, ‘I’m gonna write this song about this’. It starts with seeds of ideas, and I try and just let my mind go to where it’s gonna go, and try and make sense of the whole thing.
Does writing about feelings facilitate a change in how you think about them?
Yeah. Writing about [personal issues] is usually me trying to process it and figure out how to get through it. A song like ‘Beauty of Breathing’, or ‘Leave It In the Sun’, a lot of that is like, write it all out on a page and be like, ‘How do I make sense of this and grow from it?’ I’m lucky to have found a positive, creative outlet for that stuff.
Recently you moved to LA from New York. Do you think that your surroundings have an impact on the art you make?
Definitely. I think the energy of New York City certainly pushed those records to be what they were. Even if it just comes down to the difference between listening to demos or trying to write while on the train, or while walking around, versus what it would be like if I was trying to do that while driving in LA. Even small stuff like that, whether you like it or not, you’re influenced by your surroundings. Whether that’s gonna make anything drastically different, I don’t know. I think it all just adds some ingredients to this thing that you’re making.
How have your experiences as a touring musician have fed into your worldview?
I’m lucky that I’ve gotten to see so many places and people in different places. I’m lucky that I can tell you firsthand that the stereotype about the Southern states in America, that everybody there thinks a certain way, is untrue.
Going around and meeting people everywhere, that’s the luckiest thing you get to do as a touring musician, and by meeting people everywhere you can see that there’s a lot of really good people everywhere who are struggling, and it gives you perspective. The more people you meet from the more different places, the more perspective you have.
What is the value of political art in the modern era, now politics unfold all day long on our phones?
I ask myself that a lot. Because political art has existed before we were in the situation that we’re currently in. So sometimes you feel like it might be a little bit hopeless to make anything, because shit’s still fucked up. But I think at the end of the day, I found out about radical politics - about feminism, about animal rights, about gender - just from listening to one Propagandhi record when I was a kid.
I think that in that there’s value, in spreading information about good things through it. I think also if you listen to reggae records from the 60s, 70s, 80s - to me that feels like empowering music for people who are fighting this fight. And I think that that still holds true now. Even if that music isn’t straight-up political all the time, it’s a commentary on the strife, it’s there to be something to sing as you’re going through this.
Or there’s political rap music. I think just even talking truthfully about what is happening is very valuable. That was true of Dr Dre having the song about the LA riots on ‘The Chronic’. When I heard that as a kid that was the first time I’d heard that perspective on it, because the media doesn’t push that perspective.
People like Noname right now, Kendrick Lamar, Denzel Curry, Run The Jewels, Killer Mike - we aren’t lacking rappers talking the real shit about what is going on right now. And I think that that’s important. At a time where there’s less and less you can trust about the media to get news, I think there’s value in getting it through music where you have one person’s unfiltered thought and perspective on what is happening.
Do you think there’s an inherent relationship between DIY music and politics?
I think that if you are in a band that is part of an underground scene, in a lot of ways that can be a political act in itself. Like, my old band Bomb The Music Industry!, the songs were not particularly political, but just through the actions of saying we’ll only play all-ages shows, we’ll only play shows that are ten bucks, we developed a community with other bands that were helping each other out.
That idea of helping each other out and building a scene is a political action, because you are doing that apart from the traditional way of doing things, which is playing bars, playing showcases, trying to get signed and get a manager. If you do it the other way, that is a political act.
The politics of equality, and sharing, and a communal way of doing things, is really ingrained in the path of doing shows in your own spaces, playing in a basement, having donation shows. Trying to build something that way, that serves as a foil to the industry’s way of doing things - that’s hand in hand with political action, because you are doing something that is against the capitalist system.
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'NO DREAM' is out now on Polyvinyl Records.
Words: Mia Hughes
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