Interview: Jeff Rosenstock on being ‘Cool’, writing depressing lyrics for upbeat songs, and staying relevant past 30
[dropcap]H[/dropcap]e had a lot of help — like, literally, dozens of people — but as captain of the D.I.Y. pirate ship Bomb the Music Industry!, Jeff Rosenstock rendered all other third-wave ska bands superfluous and dispensable. Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake and Big D and the Kids Table and their myriad upstroking kindred could all, finally, go home to their families and live normal lives in relative comfort. As of the release of To Leave or Die In Long Island almost a decade ago, the world no longer required the services of the aforementioned outfits. Rosenstock and his cohort had taken their genre as far as it could possibly go.
Although “release” might be the wrong word. “Offer,” is maybe more accurate? Every BTMI! record was and remains available online for a suggested donation, which seemed pretty nutty in the pre-Spotify era before it became the case for every record from every band. Curious listeners can likewise yank Rosenstock’s second official post-Bomb solo effort, We Cool? off the web at their leisure. Out this week, We Cool? demonstrates his progression further beyond genre tropes and landing an identity that transcends punk, without abandoning the anti-branding ethics of Bomb the Music Industry!, but the odds that you’ve already heard it and already have your own opinion on it by now are pretty good if you’re reading this.
Rosenstock opens for like-minded associates Andrew Jackson Jihad, alongside The Smith Street Band, and Chumped at Royale on Saturday, March 21. Last month, Rosenstock spoke with Vanyaland while waiting for an overdue UPS delivery at his Long Island, New York, apartment. Topics covered here include the polarizing Lost finale, penning upbeat songs with depressing lyrics, and the crucial struggle to remain relevant in your 30s.
Barry Thompson: You do you a Lost podcast, and Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof have basically said since they don’t own the franchise, it’s a matter of time before Disney does more Lost stuff in some form. Do you absolutely dread that day, as I do?
Jeff Rosenstock: I’m kind of into the idea of them doing Lost with new characters and just doing it again. I’m down with that. I don’t care. I’ll watch fucking Lost no matter what, even though I’ve been watching it out of order for this podcast, which is just the worst possible way to watch that show. But I’m still like, yeah, I’m in.
Which Lost character do you identify with most?
Oh, uh, probably Jack, because he’s a piece of shit, and he always keeps trying to help out with things, but he’s an asshole, and just fucks everything up instead. So I think I, unfortunately, relate to that. I’d like to relate to Desmond, because he’s a cool guy. I drink too much like Desmond.
What’d you make of the last episode? I was really miffed about it.
Y’know, during the ending of Lost, my roommate at the time was, like, deep-frying a bunch of food. I just remember being, like, “Aw, man, that deep fryer is so loud! Just stop it!” So that fucked with me more than the ending itself. I don’t expect any movie or TV show or anything to exist solely for what I think it should do at the end. y’know? So I was like, “Alright, it’s a fine ending.” People were fucking pissed about it, though. They felt like they put in their time, and didn’t get the payoff they earned. I was like, “Whatever man. It’s a TV show. Grow up.”
I dunno. They had all that almost-Christian new-agey bullshit thrown in, and the sideways-verse ended up having no connection to anything happening on The Island and fuckin’ what the fuck…
Whatever. It wasn’t for us. It was for somebody else who liked that ending.
Yeah, I guess. Anyhow, Bomb The Music Industry! started out as just you, and then it became a whoooole bunch of other people, but since you were the primary songwriter/leadership type guy, couldn’t you have put these two solo records out but called them Bomb the Music Industry! records instead?
Yeah, I mean, I would’ve done that if, like, after, if Goodbye Cool World! or Get Warmer it was back to me doing it myself, y’know? But it wasn’t like that. It definitely started out as just me. Then it turned into anybody. There are so many people who’ve been in Bomb the Music Industry! just because I wanted a band that was, like, anybody could be in it. If somebody had to work or do whatever they had to do with their life, they didn’t have to worry about quitting, they could always come back. Then as time went on, it solidified into the five people, me and Matt [Keegan] and Mike [Costa] and Tom [Malinowski] and John [DeDomenici], who ended up doing the last bunch of tours. So when Matt was like, “I’m moving to Australia” and was like, “We should do this band part time,” or whatever, I wasn’t really, I don’t know.
It seemed like, if I… y’know, it would’ve been disrespectful to everyone if I had been like, “Well, Bomb the Music Industry! is just me again! Fuck all you guys!” Y’know? When I put out I Look Like Shit, I didn’t do any press or anything for it. I just put it online, and said, “Hey, here’s a solo record,” That was fun to just not have it be a thing, whereas, if I had done that and called Bomb the Music Industry!, we would’ve been having a similar conversation, except I would’ve been explaining why I fucking don’t care about my friends and don’t think their contributions to Bomb the Music Industry! were important. And that’s just not true. I love my friends, and I don’t think Bomb the Music Industry! would’ve been Bomb the Music Industry! without the people who were in it.
You’ve mentioned that you consider We Cool? the first “real” album you’ve done since 2011’s Vacation. Could you elaborate on that?
Um, well, with I Look Like Shit [from 2012], make no mistake, I didn’t just say, like, “Whatever,” about that record. I worked hard on it, but it was put together during two years. It wasn’t until Andrew Jackson Jihad was going to take me on tour as Jeff Rosenstock, not Bomb The Music Industry! with an iPod or Bomb the Music Industry! acoustic or whatever, that I said, “I need to have something out. I need to have songs so I’m not just doing a bad version of Bomb the Music Industry! right after Bomb the Music Industry! announced that we’re going to stop playing shows soon. So I gathered up a handful of songs and and finished off a few other songs I had in my head.
To me, We Cool? was different. This record I wrote as a record. I worked really hard to make it a complete, cohesive thing while I was writing it, as opposed to I Look Like Shit, which was just kind of, like, “Alright, I have these songs. How can I make them sound like a unit?” These songs were all recorded in the same time in the same place. I Look Like Shit is fun because it came together the same way as Album Minus Band came together — kind of unexpectedly, and then it was, “Oh, I have a thing.” Whereas this was, like, a conscious decision, like, “Hey, oh, let me go into a place and record these for real with a band and stuff and see what happens.”
Fear of aging, or apprehension that you’re not maturing fast enough, or whatever, has been a consistent theme in your lyrics with, like, a whole bunch of songs. I think everybody has that, but do know why you keep going back to that headspace, and even thriving in that headspace?
I think, just, unfortunately and I wish I wasn’t this way, I’m more creative when I get in that negative headspace. I would be stoked if I wasn’t like that. I just kind of write what I’m writing when it comes into my head, like, “Okay, this would sound cool. It’s something I would hear and be like, “Okay!” Those are the bands — Andrew Jackson Jihad or The Weakerthans, or Good Luck, or The Sidekicks, all those bands have lyrics that deal with stress and depression and that stuff. I really like bands like that. So it makes more sense for me to write songs about that shit than if I tried to write a love song or a party song. It’s harder for me to make that stuff sound believable.
When I’m having an awesome time, like, “Aw, fuck, I’m in love!” I’m not like, “I need to write shit down!” I just kind of want to live in that moment. And when I’m down, writing’s the only thing that gets me out of it for even a second, and it’s nice that something productive comes out of bad shit in my head. But I would be totally stoked if it wasn’t like that, and I could write believable songs about other stuff. Hopefully someday I will, and I’ll just be a well-adjusted person and that’ll be awesome.
Yeah, but plenty of bands do depressing or angry music with downtrodden lyrics. Your stuff tends to scan as a lot peppier, at least if you don’t pay attention to the lyrics.
Yeah, I don’t know. I guess that’s just my thing. When I’m writing the music itself, I think I’m in a different headspace than when I’m writing the music, unless it all comes at the same time, y’know? I just try to write music that I would like to listen to, and I’m not a particularly big fan of… well, any good version of anything is good. But if you play me some, like, Hot 97 awesome fucking hip-hop song, or something fast and loud, or something that sounds epic and triumphant, I’m always going to be inclined to be like “Fuck Yeah!” more than if you played me some kind of slow, plodding thing in a minor key. If the music was always really slow, and it was as much of a bummer as the lyrics, I don’t think there would be as much of a reason to listen to it, except for being bummed out, and you want to listen to music to feel all kinds of things, you don’t just want to feel sad, y’know?
Thing that’s been on my mind that seems like something you’d be able to provide perspective on — I’m finding most of my friends have ceased to give a fuck about punk rock, and I think I still kind of do, but sometimes I’m not sure. Is that because the cultural paradigm has shifted so much that “punk” is an antiquated idea, is it because me and my friends are old and suck now?
I think it’s because you and your friends are old and suck now, I guess? I mean, like, I remember reading articles with punk bands that are bigish, and they were talking about how, “Oh, there’s never going to be another Fugazi and it just doesn’t work that way anymore.” And when I was reading that, I was going on DIY tours and playing at houses where people were putting on all-ages shows letting everybody come with bands printing their own merch and giving away their music for free and stuff like that.
I think punk is still alive and doing that stuff. It’s a lot harder when you get older to stay in touch, I think, because a lot of the people you know from scenes like that and the people in those worlds only last for a couple of years until, like, all their good intentions have run out or something bad happened and they’re like “Oh fuck, I have to get a job and deal with reality.”’
Then a younger crew of people comes in and starts doing shit, and if you don’t know them it might be harder to stay in touch and stay on top of it. But if you really like music and still want to see interesting bands and not be super out of touch or anything, you have to look for it. That’s a really worthwhile endeavor, and keeps you excited. Y’know, I never want to turn into the guy who just says, “Uh, Dillinger Four was the best punk band, and then everything sucked,” or like, “Oh, I don’t like any new music. I only like my old records.” Because new music is awesome, too. It’s also harder because production sucks so much now. Like, bands make records where everything’s autotuned and it sounds like this big computerized racket that’s designed to manipulate you emotionally, in a way. I try to avoid that like that fucking plague. I hate shit like that. So I not only try to keep in touch with what’s going on, but try to avoid shit like that.
It’s all still there. You just gotta look for it.