Photo by Dan Ozzi
Jeff Rosenstock On 'NO DREAM,' Moving To L.A. & Writing Anxious Albums For Anxious Times
This time last year, Jeff Rosenstock was living in a cramped Brooklyn apartment, surrounded by toppling towers of records, T-shirts and shipping boxes. For eight years, he and his wife and tour manager, Christine, had used their tight living space as the hub of operations for his career as a punk frontperson, indie label operator, and soundtrack composer. Then, in January, the couple packed everything up and moved across the country to the Highland Park area of Los Angeles, where they could stretch out a bit. They now inhabit a house with a porch that overlooks sun-drenched hills and rooftops, an office out of which they fulfill mail orders, a studio room where Rosenstock spends most of his day writing, and the greatest luxury for any former New Yorker: a laundry room. Two months after making the cross-country jump, though, the world decided they'd be stuck in their new digs for a while.
"It seems like a good time to switch from an apartment to a house," says Rosenstock. "It makes me nervous to think about New York. I feel for everybody who's there. In my mind, I can't imagine walking around in New York City and not touching, like, 30 things the second you step out of your house."
Even though Rosenstock's surroundings have changed and the entire world has been turned upside-down, the 37-year-old remains the same. Despite his proud slacker demeanor, the cult punk hero thrives on proliferation, and all the time locked inside has made him more productive than ever. Last week, he treated his devoted fanbase to a surprise album, NO DREAM, which had been recorded in February with GRAMMY-nominated producer Jack Shirley. The release comes only a few months after a live record, 2019's Thanks, Sorry!, not to mention sporadic output from his buddy project with Chris Farren called Antarctigo Vespucci, and his day job scoring the Cartoon Network show "Craig Of The Creek."
NO DREAM, his fourth LP since going solo following the dissolution of his beloved Bomb The Music Industry!, has been a welcome gift for fans, though the timing is bittersweet. Rosenstock's songs are meant to be sung—or, more accurately, shouted—in densely packed rooms of sweaty friends. With no live shows scheduled for the foreseeable future, those chomping at the bit to unleash the catharsis of a scary, frustrating year will have to wait.
The Recording Academy spoke with Rosenstock (from a safe distance) about the anxieties that fueled NO DREAM, the uncertain future of live music and the power artists wield through livestreaming.
Something that's often said about your records is that they are "prescient" or "a perfect album for the time." But could it be that you just write anxious records for an increasingly anxious world?
I've never been tightlipped about being an anxious person. Part of the way I process it is to write, and then that makes me feel a little bit better. So that’s just how I’ve written songs since I was a kid. Maybe anxiety is just a little cooler now that we all realize things are bad. [Laughs.]
WORRY. came out right before the 2016 election, and now NO DREAM was released during a pandemic. How do the anxieties differ between the two?
I don't feel like I talked about anything Trumpy on WORRY. at all. I think the specific stuff on that record was gentrification and police killing people of color. Those were the things on that record I was firing on. The big one on this new record is that it seemed like we had a mass shooting every week. Over the last three or four years, we’ve had this neverending newscycle of bad things where it becomes static. It’s all there, all the time, and I don’t think our brains can process any of it. And in the shuffle, every week somebody goes to a school or church or a place where people gather and open fire with assault rifles, yet we still have assault rifles in this country because the gun lobby will always control our government.
You've been a very vocal critic of the exploitative model of the music industry. Have you noticed any changes, either positive or negative, during COVID?
I need to say right off the bat that I do not think of the music industry in any way. I think about bands and my musician friends. The industry as a whole is set up to take power away from musicians. I don’t really know how we’ll come out of it. There was a second there where artists were doing their own livestreams on their own platforms, and it was cool. The first couple of days of it, where Ben Gibbard was like, “F**k it, I’m gonna sit in my living room and play songs for you," that was a cool thing. Then it slowly got co-opted by brands and tastemakers. And then bands are asking, "Well, shit, this band is on this thing, why can't I get on that thing?" And then it just becomes the same problem, where the promoter only books the talent they're friends with. On the artist's side, there’s a validity to want to be a part of those things because you’re reaching new audiences. I don’t really know how it’s all going to shake out. I think musicians have power to play to their fanbase right now, whenever they want, in a cool way.
In December, I was trying to figure out how to put merch on my Spotify page that wasn’t merch. It was just to donate five or 10 or 20 dollars. I do think in my heart people who use these services are starting to question why artists aren’t getting paid, so I wondered if you could present people with an option to do that. You have to sign up through this one company that approves your merch items; it’s a whole thing. I remember thinking, "Oh, they just do not want people to donate." So, when they put [the donation button] up, I thought, "You should have had that up there the whole f**king time." When COVID ends, that button should be there. It seems like the music industry figured out a way to have Napster, which they sued everybody over, but now they’re making the money and artists are making no money. The thing that's frustrating is that there isn’t really an alternative. There isn’t really a universal way to get music on people’s phones the way that you could rip an mp3 and put it up somewhere. It’s not just bad royalty rates; it’s that there’s a barrier between the artist and the listener.
Jeff Rosenstock performs at Pitchfork Festival in 2017
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images
A lot of artists have been talking about this being a very difficult time in which to be productive. You produce things at a rapid clip, with your solo records, and the live record, and Antarctico Verspucci, and scoring a cartoon. What drives you to produce at that rate?
The cartoon drives me at this point. When this went down, I had four weeks off from the cartoon between seasons. I was like, that’ll be great, I’ll have a month to get to know my new city—just drive around and go to the beach and recenter myself. Moving out here was a big thing to process. And then when this all went down, I hit up Ben Levin, one of the creators of "Craig Of The Creek," and was just like, "Eh, just send me the episodes now. I don’t care. I don’t want to just sit around and do nothing." I said yes to everything. Then once I started working, I was too distracted to think about anything else.
Has working on "Craig" informed your own music at all?
I think it’s a big part of why there's so much punk on this record. There were a handful of opportunities to write these 20- or 30-second pop punk or ska songs for the show. A lot of the score is basically trying to make the sounds of my youth feel cinematic and big. So I was thinking about that a lot. So, it’s that, combined with running and driving a lot, and the music I was listening to then.
A theme that’s come through in your work, and comes up on this record too, is the idea of enjoying being hermetic. On the album's last line you say, "I hate coming home / I hate leaving home." In the context of everything that’s happened over the last few months, and being forced to stay home, has that changed how averse you are to the world?
Yeah, for sure. Even before this, not being on tour for the last year, it made me miss traveling around and seeing people. But doesn’t everybody feel both ways? I feel like I exist as both an introvert and extrovert. I do like seeing people, but also, if it was fine with everybody for me to disappear for six months and it affected nothing at all, I'd be chill with that.
I was looking at one of Amanda Fotes' photos of you the other day and it instantly reminded me of how difficult it would be to hold one of your live shows right now. Everyone in it is sweaty and touching you.
Yeah, I don’t know what I’m gonna do! [Laughs.] I'm always getting my ass-sweat on everybody while I'm crowdsurfing with a saxophone after playing for an hour and a half. How are we gonna do that? I don’t know! I think we can all agree on the future being pretty unpredictable. We don’t know when it’s gonna open up. We don’t know what the restrictions are gonna be, what’s gonna feel safe. We live in an age where there are no definite sources for shit anymore. We need real info and it’s not been a priority for our government to give us that info.
And in the context of live music, I feel like we’re always hearing from some concert promoter about the future of music rather than a scientist.
But then, also, how is a scientist going to understand what happens at a concert? A scientist might be taken aback by the amount of jumping on each other that goes on at our shows.
You know who could solve this? Milo Aukerman. It’s the punk scientist's time to shine.
Yeah, where is he? He's the Venn Diagram cross-section!
Would you play a drive-in concert?
I'll do a drive-in concert. F**k it. Whatever’s the thing that makes sense. We don’t know what’s gonna be safe. Maybe I’ll wear a hazmat suit that’s got vents in it so I don’t suffocate, or it’s lined with ice pack material.
You'd be like Wayne Coyne in the bubble.
Oh yeah, Flaming Lips shows could still be going on, because he's safe in that bubble.
Do you remember the last show you played?
Yeah, I played a house show in San Jose at my friends Laura and Gil’s basement. After everything went down, the three of us were texting, like, "Uh oh, we just gathered a bunch of people in your basement." That was the last show we played. I wasn't particularly good but it was fun and I had a good time. I hope I can do it again.