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Welcome to HELLMODE!!! with Jeff Rosenstock
An interview about ethics, inflation, and compilation CDs with the Essential Ska official playlist spokesperson.
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Today’s post is about the one and only Jeff Rosenstock. Ever freakin’ heard of him??? Okay enjoy.
In December 2013 I emailed this guy named Jeff Rosenstock to ask if I could interview him about the demise of his band, Bomb the Music Industry!. He said sure come on over I love having complete strangers in my apartment no problem. Funnily enough, he happened to live around the corner from me in Brooklyn. Sitting here now and reading back the piece I ended up writing, it’s… ~*fine*~. Definitely some tweaks I’d make to it today, but hey if you’re not constantly critiquing your past work it means that you’re not
an insecure and neurotic lunatic improving, right?
Jeff has launched a solo career in the ten years since that article ran and I’ve written about his journey here and there. One memory that sticks out was the time we walked to Mexico together right after candidate Trump was starting his Build the Wall rhetoric and I wrote about that. This piece is also ~*fine*~, in hindsight.
It seems like these days every time Jeff drops a new record, a publication will hit me up to ask if I’ll explain him to their readers like I’m the dang Jeff Whisperer or something. But I’m always happy to do it because Jeff puts everything he has behind everything he does and it really shows in his music, so he’s an easy guy to root for. Plus the publications pay me money, which I need to live. The Guardian Saturday Magazine (very prestigious) asked me to write about Jeff’s new album HELLMODE, and they happen to pay by the word so I said sure. (Pro tip: Apparently it is “not good journalism” to copy and paste the same paragraph over and over until they owe you $10,000. That’s not “how it works.”)
Anyway, what was I saying? Oh right, HELLMODE. It's good. Really good, in fact. I doubt anyone who follows me needs me to tell them it’s really good since roughly 85% of the people who come up to me at shows to tell me they liked my books are wearing Jeff Rosenstock shirts but… it’s really good. Yet again he has managed to raise the bar for this controlled chaotic sound he’s been perfecting for a decade. Many have attempted it, but no one pulls it off quite like him. Ten years ago, if you looked The Fest’s lineup, it was 100 bands trying to sound like Hot Water Music. Now it’s 100 bands trying to sound like Jeff. Of course, by the time anyone comes even remotely close to catching up to what he’s doing, he’s already miles ahead. Truly just an artist in his own league.
But how to write about Jeff for the millionth time? Well, there’s something that I’m not sure people fully get about Jeff from watching him from afar, which is this: he is working ALL THE TIME. It’s sort of an inside joke among friends. Like when people say, “Hey is Jeff coming out tonight?” We will all agree that he’s probably down in his basement, WORKING. “Ha ha typical Jeff. Always WORKING, that guy. What a hard WORKER, Jeff is.” I mention his work ethic only because Jeff’s shows are a lot of fun and everyone has a good time, but I’m not sure people understand just how much work he puts in to make those kinds of events happen. So I asked Jeff if I could hang around him on his busiest and most stressed out day (the ideal time to interview a person!) and wrote about it for the Guardian. You can read the profile here. Here’s the lede:
Jeff Rosenstock has been tinkering all morning. The punk frontman sits alone in the cluttered makeshift studio in the basement of his Los Angeles home, hunched over his desk in sandals and an obnoxiously bright green tank top, his face glued to his computer monitor. There’s a neon sign on the wall behind him that reads: “It’s 420 Somewhere.” He replays the same 15 seconds of audio over and over, clicking his mouse around to fiddle with various levels and sounds, making imperceptibly tiny tweaks. Hours pass like this. Every once in a while he breaks the silence by grumbling “Fuck” or “Shit” under his breath.
But you know how when you assemble a piece of IKEA furniture there are like six leftover screws and wooden dowels for some reason and you worry that your Fljüngsten will fall off the wall in the middle of the night and cave your skull in? Well… I’ve got some leftover material, and I figured people might want to read that too. So here’s an interview with Jeff below, edited for length and clarity. Also, I got to take photos of the HELLMODE recording sessions that Jeff and crew did at a fancy Hollywood studio with Jack Shirley. In the same room where blink recorded Take Off Your Pants and Jacket! And System of a Down did Toxicity! In fact, I made a feeble attempt at recreating the photo from the back cover:
Hopefully I can share more of those with you soon but in the meantime, here’s this weird panorama shot I took with my phone.
Alright then, on to the interview…
When we first started hanging out years ago, you told me you had fans who assumed you were drinking all day and drunk driving all the time. Do you think your image is still that, a party guy?
Jeff Rosenstock: No, I don't think so. I don’t go as hard. Back then, at the end of a Bomb the Music Industry! show, we’d all be spray-painting shirts and drinking 40s in the parking lot. We had a designated driver rotation because everyone would get fucking destroyed every night, and that just isn’t the case anymore. So I don’t know. I don’t know what kind of reputation I have from people.
I feel like your fans now are where you were 15 years ago.
Maybe. Some of them. I think 15 years ago, the audience situation could get a little toxic for people who didn’t want to be fucked with, but people are really friendly now. There are still a handful of those people out there. I think you just can’t get rid of that if you pull a large group of people together. But for the most part, I think it is nice, weird people.
That’s a good descriptor of your fanbase.
Yeah, but now that I think about it, that’s kind of how it was for Bomb shows too. Maybe I’m going back on what I just said. It’s always just been people who are psyched to be at a place and around each other.
I rewatched the Bomb doc last night. When was the last time you watched it?
I hadn’t watched it in a while. We all watched it together a while ago. I watched it with my parents.
What’d they think?
They liked it. It was weird to watch it with my parents, because in the middle of it, I talked about how I didn’t think I was gonna live to 30.
Sure, but that wasn’t the focus. It was just one line.
Yeah, but now my parents know. [laughs]
That documentary was largely about the band, and specifically you, trying to adhere to a set of ideals and the compromises you have to make along the way. Now that you’ve been doing this solo thing for years and have been affiliated with record labels and appeared on TV, how do you feel about that, looking back? Do you feel like you’ve compromised at all?
Maybe, but I wasn’t trying to adhere to any ideals. I was just trying to do shit that I thought was cool, and I’ve never stopped trying to do shit that I thought was cool. There have been a handful of tiny compromises, mostly in the marketing of the band. Like, sometimes you have to run dark ads for shows for promoters. They run from your page. I don’t really want to push any advertising on people. It’s stuff like that, that no one really bats an eye at. No one cares about that shit but me. That was kind of a bit of a revelation with Bomb, where I was keeping ticket prices where I kept them, and then getting to a point where you realize people don’t care. Or maybe they care, but not as much as you think. Tickets have gotten more expensive. There are little things that you have to do differently. But I never feel like I’m compromising myself. I’m just exploring how stuff gets done.
Yeah, but while you’re not impervious to inflation and rising labor costs, there are little things you’ve done to stick to your principles. Like, maybe vinyl production has gotten more expensive but you also still give away your music for free on your website.
Yeah, and we still keep [vinyl] as cheap as it can be. I’ll look at what other bands are charging for stuff and say, “Well, as long as we still come in under or around that.”
And your shows are still all-ages, yes?
And that’s another example. You’re susceptible to the changing music industry, but you stick to these little principles that matter.
Yeah. And they don’t make it easy to do it, either. The prices we charge for tickets and the size of the rooms on this tour, I know those venues wanted to have more expensive tickets, but it’s like, nope! We get pressured to do it differently or charge more, and I’m always like nope nope nope nope. It’s not about holding onto any punk dream or anything. It’s that, when I was in college, the records I could afford to buy and the shows I could afford to go to were cheaper. So I just try to look at it like how to provide the most access.
The smartest idea that came out of the 90s were those cheap punk comps. Five bucks and you could find a whole bunch of new bands.
And they all put their best songs on it! It’s a shame that that isn’t a reasonable form of media anymore. Yeah, I can make a CD comp but no one has a CD player. Or I could make an LP comp but it’ll take six months to come out. You can make a Spotify playlist, but everybody makes a Spotify playlist. And to make a playlist, I also have to sell the brand of Spotify or Apple Music.
Speaking of, I saw that you were the literal face of Essential Ska on Spotify. How’d you feel about that?
I love it. And I had one ska record. SKA DREAM, man! The way SKA DREAM turned out is just delightful to me. It was a bit. An elaborate bit. And it wasn’t poking fun at anyone or anything, but ultimately, it was an April Fool’s joke that we had a lot of fun with. But when it came out, I think maybe people just needed to hear people having fun. And now I’m on the Essential Ska Spotify playlist. [laughs]
All of the things you and I grew up on as a kid—pop punk, emo, and ska—it’s having a cultural moment now, but the way it’s being celebrated makes my skin crawl. It’s always like, “Hey! Remember this silly thing from your childhood? Go put on your Hot Topic shirt and be emo!” I just hate it. But I feel like what makes what you do really resonate with people is that it’s so apparent that these things you love, corny or not, you genuinely love them. I think the sincerity is what endears you to people. There’s zero nostalgia behind it.
As I get older, I’ve kind of always looked at it like vocabulary. As you get older and smarter, you learn more words, but you don’t forget the old words you know. So I just kept that in the back of my head. I don’t want to turn my back on the foundation of my relationship with music. I don’t want to bail on it because it’s not cool. And then at a certain point I wanted to lean into it because it’s not cool.
Watching the Bomb doc last night, I was thinking of that idea you’re talking about now, of building vocabulary. Someone who was really into Bomb ten years ago, maybe now they’re not actively thinking about Bomb every single day, but the idea that you implanted in them stays forever.
Yeah! That’s what music has done for me. Fugazi or NOFX or Asian Man, anyone who was hardcore doing it themselves, it all stays with you.
I’ve always found it so funny how much acclaim you get, and specifically from Pitchfork—
The acclaim I used to get, until this record comes out. [laughs]
What are you talking about? I feel like you’ve said that before the release of every record you’ve done. Why would this one be different?
I have no answer for you, other than a gut feeling that everything I do will end terribly. [laughs] That’s just how I’m wired.
Shifting to Craig of the Creek, do you feel like scoring that show has influenced the music you write for yourself?
I think, if anything, it made the music punker at first. Ben, who is one of the creators, wanted punk and ska as the backbone of the show. I’ve gotten faster, I’ve learned more, I’ve gotten more confident, especially with writing, because I’ve written so much. But I’ve probably also made less music [for myself] because I’ve made so much music for Craig of the Creek.
I don’t know, man. You’ve been pretty fucking prolific.
It’s been three years since the last record!
But you also made a ska version of the last record!
That’s true, and 2020 DUMP also happened. OK, fine. But I just like to write.
All photos by me. Do not use without permission.