One of the most important voices in the punk/garage/ska/whatever you want to call guitar-driven music not on a major label is a 40-year-old with two decades of releases and touring under his belt. Jeff Rosenstock did not expect to be here, at least at this level.
For more than two decades, Rosenstock has been making music and touring behind that music, doing it the “right way.” After nearly a decade in the dreamy ska landscape, he began releasing solo albums, gaining more acclaim and fans with each subsequent release.
We spoke with the frontman before his upcoming Anthem double bill with The Gaslight Anthem. It was cool. We cool.
District Fray: How does it feel being 40?
Jeff Rosenstock: Fine. It feels weird. I’ve tried to just not even really think about it.
It’s weird. I think it’s like, you turn 30, you turn 20. All of them are just kind of like, Huh, that’s a milestone, but I also feel like, our generation or whatever, it’s not really. Like, I’m not on the path that anybody else that I really know my age is on or not necessarily nobody.
It just feels different than like, I think when people turned 40 when I was a kid, but maybe that’s because I just turned 40. And I’m kidding myself. I don’t know.
I don’t think you are kidding yourself. You’ve been self-reflecting for the duration of your career, for more than 20 years. You’ve been critiquing the norms of what a 40-year-old or 30-year-old, should be doing. And now you’re here and still doing it. And it’s not sad.
I’m lucky. I’m lucky it’s not sad. I had a couple of things bounce my way in my 30s, which is not usually how that goes. I was like, “Oh, I guess I’m doing this. Okay. Cool.” You know, after Bomb stopped I was like, “Oh, that was fun.” (Editor’s Note: Rosenstock’s previous band, Bomb the Music Industry!, were together from 2004 to 2014.) I didn’t really expect a second wave to play music and shit. I just figured I’d make demos and put them out, you know?
How does it feel to be back like normal-ish?
It’s just great. Every show that we’ve played has been just been insane. It’s been so much fun. It’s so nice to not just play and to also just like to be around people again, like who are just kind of in our world and in our community or whatever. It’s a good vibe. And that’s nice to see after being isolated. At the same time, because we are a touring band, we have to take things pretty safe. We’re trying to be considerate of people coming to shows and are high risk. We’re all wearing masks inside while we’re on tour. When we’re in like, Kansas or somewhere and nobody’s been wearing a mask for years, I was like, “Oh, hey, no, I’m like in a touring band, I just, I can’t get it. If I get it, everything gets ruined.”
There is like the weird specter of like it hanging over you that, like, no one really seems to care that much about getting any more because you’re vaccinated or whatever, and it’s not gonna kill you.
I feel like we’re kind of still in 2020. And a lot of ways when we’re on tour, just because we want to keep it going, but it gets chiller and chiller every time.
When we get past it. it’s gonna be cool. It’s gonna be neat. Like when we could play shows and get in the crowd and shit again and not be like, “Oh, is this gonna cost us cancelling our Midwest shows because did something stupid.” You know what I mean? I’m looking forward to like doing stupid shit again.
Who were the artists you looked up to when you were just starting out?
When I was growing up it was a weird cross between like pop stuff that was on MTV, like Paula Abdul and Madonna and Bobby Brown, and then like Anthrax, and Metallica and stuff like that. And finding like through like, seeing Green Day stuff. I kind of found my way into punk. And I think very specifically Mike Park and Asian Man Records and Fugazi and NOFX, putting out their own things and like doing it all themselves definitely made me realize you could do this on a big level.
Throughout life you find things you really like. I remember the first time I heard Bikini Kill and changed everything for me and I was in my early 20s and that’s kind of late to be formative. I felt like that the first time I got into the record “If You’re Feeling Sinister” by Belle and Sebastian. I felt like that the first time I heard Kamasi Washington’s “The Epic,” it kind of broke my brain. There’s shit along the way that keeps breaking me. That’s beautiful.
“USA” was maybe the best song of 2018. Does that song mean anything different to you now, four years later?
Oh, thank you. I still remember touring after the election — being in the Midwest, looking at people wondering, “What are they thinking?” You know what I mean? Like, how are we at this place right now? Where racism, xenophobia and violence are mainstream, acceptable points of view. And it’s still the same driving around now. We got rolled up on by some old lady at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. She’s like, “Let’s go, Brandon!” And we’re just like, “Get out of here.” You know what I mean? It still feels the same to me.
How do you think it feels for me? My name is Brandon.
Oh boy. My mom’s name is Karen.
How does Karen feel about this whole thing?
She doesn’t like it. She’s not she’s not happy her name has been, you know, co-opted.
You’re touring everywhere, visiting every 100, 200 miles or so. Are you more hopeful?
I think you feel that in places. We felt this so much in this last tour specifically. I think about the show we played in Great Falls, Montana, which is a very, very small town. Not that many people came, but everybody who did had the best energy and I was so happy. It’s nice to be around each other after being disconnected.
When you started, you were a teenager. Did you think you’d still be doing this at this age?
I thought I would still be making music. I think I will, in some capacity, until I’m dead and gone, baby. It’s what I’m doing whether or not anybody’s here. I didn’t intend this to happen at this level and I’m just like, along for the ride.
The Gaslight Anthem with special guest Jeff Rosenstock play The Anthem October 5. Follow Jeff Rosenstock at greatmovieideas.tumblr.com and @jeffrosenstock. Listen to his newest release, “Ska Dream,” on most streaming platforms. Not Amazon Music. His music isn’t on Amazon.
The Jeff Rosenstock Beginner’s Guide
Rosenstock has a Neil Young or Jeff Tweedy-like career. There’s a lot of stuff. A lot. It may be difficult to know where to break in. You can go to the beginning with his bands The Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb the Music Industry! or start with a side project (Antarctigo Vespucci) or composing work (“Craig of the Creek”). Rather than attempt to be a completist, we’re suggesting beginning with the newest and working your way backwards.
Here are six standout tracks from the six Jeff Rosenstock full-length albums. We did not include stuff from EPs or live albums or singles or compilations or guest appearances or the “2020 DUMP” because that’s just too much, too soon.
“p i c k i t u p” from “SKA Dream” (2021)
The ska version of “f a m e” from “No Dream” is actually more powerful with a little more keyboard and up strokes.
“N O D R E A M” from “No Dream” (2020)
Written and recorded before the pandemic and summer of 2020, this May 2020 release became a prescient song about the rest of the year.
“USA” from “Post-” (2018)
Rosenstock doesn’t have many tracks clocking in more than four minutes. He uses the most of the 7-and-a-half minutes of “USA.” A little Springsteen circa “Nebraska,” a little Trail of Dream circa “Source Tags & Codes,” a little Neil Young with Crazy Horse, it’s an outlier in the catalog and contains most everything great about the artist.
“….While You’re Alive” from “WORRY” (2016)
Gimme that introspective Rosenstock, baby! There’s still a ton of sing-a-long screaming and shouting in this under 2-minute track, but the lyrics are on par with folks like Nick Drake and Elliott Smith with way, way, way less of the misery.
“I’m Serious, I’m Sorry” from “We Cool?” (2015)
There’s so much beauty and understanding and anger and fear and hope in a song about one of the worst possible experiences.
“The Internet Is Everywhere” from “I Look Like Shit” (2012)
A very good lesson to remember when scrolling through social media feeds.