After Jeff Rosenstock was announced to play at Pitchfork last summer, a lot of folks seemed to be looking forward to a train-wreck collision between a scruffy DIY punk who’d spent most of his career giving away his music for free and a big-budget festival crowded with corporate sponsors.
In some ways, Rosenstock played to that expectation: “I just wanna give a really sincere shout-out to the person at Pitchfork who got fired by letting us play this festival!” he hollered from the stage. He complained about the sponsors: “Just because there’s a Lyft balloon around here that you’re looking at—you’re like, ‘Ooh, that’s nice!’—doesn’t mean you have to buy anything from Lyft. Fuck it.” And as his band wound up into “Festival Song,” which critiques the extraction of profit from youth culture, he broke another taboo: “Seventy. Five. Hundred. Dollars,” he said. “For us. To play. This festival.”
But for the most part, Rosenstock’s festival set was a lot like a giant version of one of his countless all-ages small-club shows, with a lot of jumping around, a lot of singing along, and a lot of fun. At one point he swatted a Donald Trump piñata into the audience with his guitar, telling them to “tear him to shreds.” And he waded into the crowd with an unmiked saxophone to lead a wordless chorus during “You, in Weird Cities.”
Rosenstock has been paying his dues in DIY venues across the country with various ska and punk bands since 1998, perhaps most famously as part of the Bomb the Music Industry! collective—and when that group announced an indefinite hiatus in 2012, he started making solo records. His 2016 album, Worry, is one of the most ambitious of his career, with a lush array of horns and synths as well as a grand Abbey Road-like closing medley. It got him onto year-end lists at publications that had ignored him up to that point, and definitely played a part in getting him that booking at Pitchfork—where he played to what he’s pretty sure was the biggest crowd of his career.
Rosenstock also recently signed to Polyvinyl Records, after a couple releases on SideOneDummy—another big change for an artist who insisted for years on giving away his own music and keeping anything remotely corporate at arm’s length. When he’s made choices that could compromise his hard-earned DIY integrity, though, he’s made them carefully. His newest album, January’s Post-, is a pay-what-you-want download on Bandcamp, and 10 percent of the proceeds from its digital sales benefit the rebuilding efforts of Defend Puerto Rico. Rosenstock is also sticking with an approach he believes contributed to his grassroots success: making his shows affordable and all-ages. Advance tickets to his show at Logan Square Auditorium on Thursday, April 26, are sold out, but they only cost $15—and that’s on the high side for him.
Before he hit the road, Rosenstock gave the Reader this interview, where he talks about Post-, his Pitchfork set, and how the ongoing disaster of the Trump administration has effected his writing process.
TJ Kliebhan: Before we talk about the new album, Post-, I want to ask you about your Pitchfork set from this past summer. Have you reflected on the set at all, or what caused fans to react with such overwhelming positivity?
Jeff Rosenstock: Yeah! So I liked being the first set in the afternoon, but I didn’t think we would be playing to anyone. I still feel like we just snuck into that festival in the first place, because we’re a punk band playing a festival that brings in very few punk bands. I also feel like more often than not, punk bands struggle to translate their show to a festival stage.
From the second that day started, we felt good and wanted to play a good show, but the size of the crowd surprised us. It was fun while we were playing because the crowd was giving lots of energy back to us. I was happy to see people loved the show, but we still packed up the van afterward, played at Beat Kitchen the next day, and drove to Iowa. It was just right back to it. But we thought it was totally cool.
Well, the Trump thing actually came from our guitarist, Mike [Hugeneor]. He just thought it would be really funny for the festival. In terms of the crowd, it may have been small for a festival, but that was a huge crowd for us! That may have been the biggest crowd we ever played to, and I didn’t even think anyone would be there. It really felt nice being up there, but I think we all just tried to do what we always do.
Most of your career has been spent crusading against the corporate world. Despite this, you’ve of course played Pitchfork, and your last stop in Chicago was at Revolution Brewing’s Oktoberfest. What’s behind easing up on sponsored events?
Well, I realized quickly that once you leave DIY events and art spaces, then there will be some corporate sponsors. Even the small bars any band gets to play have beer signs all over the place. I’ve played the Fest in Florida, which is one of the big punk festivals in the United States, and that is a huge corporate event. I think it’s easy to ignore how much of just going outside involves engagement with corporations. Even going to the movies or just going to see a local band at the smallest venue I can think of in Brooklyn involves some engagement with corporations.
However, it’s true that my band is doing more of these things. I honestly think it’s because doing the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago was a lot of fun. We sort of realized after that the pay is good and we still meet a lot of nice people after the show. Revolution Brewing in Chicago was a no-brainer for us. It was a free festival in the street sponsored by independent brewers. I am totally down with things like that, but for now we’re just dipping our toes in with these types of events. If it’s a big festival, they usually let us play a smaller show too, which is important to me, so that there’s an event in town that’s affordable for all our fans. As more of these opportunities roll in, I’m always going to look at how we can play a smaller show for those fans. We’re pretty much taking these opportunities on a case-by-case basis right now, but this is a tough question to answer because I feel like I’m sorting out my feelings on this while answering [laughter].
You’re playing the Logan Square Auditorium on April 26, an all-ages venue. You’ve expressed in the past how important playing all-ages shows is to you. Has it been difficult to balance accommodating your growing audience with your long-standing principles of keeping shows all-ages and cheap?
Not really, actually. Our tour now is entirely all-ages shows, and tickets are 15 bucks or cheaper. As this thing grows, I think it’s important that I hang on to those principles. Who would I be if I thought that since my band is “doing better” I should charge more? We have to play all-ages shows. I try to use the wider audience I’m now garnering as a way to say we can have this audience and still keep shows cheap and all-ages. Our buddies Modern Baseball took us out on tour a couple years ago, and they really inspired us. As they were really blowing up, they were playing mostly if not only all-ages shows, and that proved to us that you can be a popular band who insists on playing those types of venues. For me there are no other options. We’re going to play all-ages spaces. If we’re getting bigger, all the more reason to prove that this thing can be done this way.
Who knows, though, maybe I’ll change my mind and jack up the ticket prices soon and get rich. Better come to the shows now!
Jeff Rosenstock at Madison Square Garden. Tickets starting at $120. I can see it.
Well, I will say this. I saw Phish at Madison Square Garden, and they did a system where all the tickets cost the same and entered you into a lottery. The lottery determined where you sat in the venue in terms of floor seats or nosebleeds. I thought that was a pretty cool system, and everyone seemed very happy about it. So maybe one day! But probably not. We’ll see if Madison Square Garden will do $15 tickets.
No. I don’t feel any obligation to do anything except write about the things that I feel the most honest about. The only obligation I feel is toward myself. Something that opened my eyes on Worry, which is what I would consider my first overtly political record, was that people really responded positively to what I wrote. This was special to me, because Worry was the first record where I really wrote about things that I was afraid to write about before.
I didn’t feel any obligation at all, but I felt very encouraged by our audience and the way they responded. That was great, because at this point it felt impossible for me not to write about what is going on. If I was trying to write something about my current feelings or my life, and not talk about American politics and “the guy,” it would be like painting without all the colors—and I’m trying to make a full damn painting here.
The record is certainly shaped around the disastrous current political climate, but the new album never succumbs to hopelessness. Post- seems bent on inspiring hope. Was that a conscious decision, or do you think it was more reflective of your natural attitude toward adversity?
I think so. It’s not fun to talk about, but getting out of bed for me a lot of the time starts with trying to overcome hopelessness. I have some mental-health stuff, and for me there are days where I need to just tell myself that I can do this. On the record, I definitely agree that overcoming one’s hopelessness and continuing on is a theme. I didn’t make this record to create like an anthemic rallying cry, because I think it would be deluded of me to think I can get everyone together and solve this thing.
But it didn’t surprise me how people have received some of these ideas on the record. For the past year or so, me and my friends have just felt down. I wanted to reflect that, as well as my bad days where I really just have to pick myself up out of bed.
I think the political climate has definitely contributed toward many people feeling that way. People seem to be looking for that thing that gets them out of bed even more now.
And I’m cashing in checks, baby! But seriously, it’s nice to know other people feel this way. That’s a common thing I’ve heard people tell me about this record is that they were relieved to learn they weren’t the only one who felt like this.
In the past you’ve stated that a primary goal of your music and live show is to simply make people feel good and give them a distraction. Lyrically you take on some serious issues, like mental health and politics. Do these two ideas ever feel at odds with each other?
Growing up on punk and ska really influences this idea in my music. I grew up listening to Green Day, Less Than Jake, Against All Authority, and bands like that, who always sang about dark shit over really melodic and triumphant music. Music that made me want to go out and drive real fast or just run around. I can’t think of a punk band that makes melodic music but is lyrically saying, “Everything is great.”
I grew up, but I still connect with punk a lot. Bands like Operation Ivy and Reel Big Fish are super sad and political, but still put out fun music—and that’s the stuff I still listen to a lot, especially when I’m writing. That part of my music isn’t really anything original. I basically try to use questions like this to defend ska, because it’s been getting shade thrown at it for the past 20 years and someone’s gotta defend it!
Do you feel like packaging that message in a melodic way gives the message a wider reach?
As a songwriter I just try to follow my gut. I don’t think I would be a good songwriter if I tried to make the lyrics fit with something heavier like Black Flag when what I enjoy writing is poppier. For me it’s just a different ways of doing things. But one way isn’t better than the other. I also grew up listening to Minor Threat and Anthrax. Plenty of bands have done heavy music and subject matter well. This is just the way I do it.
You’re also writing songs for Craig of the Creek, a new show that debuted on Cartoon Network last month. Did you approach writing music for a cartoon differently than the writing process you’ve already described?
What’s different about this is that I have a deadline. With a record, we’re waiting for inspiration or deciding if we even want to record in a given year. For Craig of the Creek, I’ve got to finish an episode that has a date for TV! It’s been really fun, but it is a completely different process. However, it doesn’t feel super unfamiliar to me, in the sense that it still involves me sitting around and trying to come up with something that feels good. The writers of the show really want me to capture emotion, but I already get emotional with cartoons anyway, so that’s not a problem. The Simpsons or Bob’s Burgers or Adventure Time can get to me.
Before every episode I sit down with the cocreator, Ben Levin, and we discuss what emotions we’re trying to push in a specific scene. Ben is great to work with, because he’s a punk guy, so he digs what I’m familiar with. That gave me the confidence to go apeshit. In the first episode we did, I submitted a track with a blastbeat, but they thought that was a bit too far! So I’ve scaled it back a bit from that, but it’s totally fun and helped me discover a different side of myself in terms of what I like to do as a songwriter.
You recently polled your fans on Twitter, asking if you should play every song off the new record. The response was an overwhelming yes. Is the plan to power through the whole thing straight away, or to break it up throughout the set?
I realized after I sent out that poll that it came out weird. We’re totally doing all nine songs, but we’re not going to do like a full-album show. We’ll mix up the set list. But I don’t know when I’m going to be in Chicago next, and people want to hear those songs, so this feels like the right time to play them.
I like those “yes or no” Twitter polls. I just try not to read the comments.