What, Jeff Rosenstock Worry?
A bright night in Mexico during a dark year in America.
All photos by Erica Lauren
It's quite beautiful at the edge of California where the United States meets Mexico. Across the border in the distance, a massive, 50-yard Mexican flag is displayed atop a 100-yard pole, one of the country's banderas monumentales. There's just enough breeze for it to sway proudly in front of the lights of Camino Verde, which illuminate as dusk settles in. As the sun tucks behind the hills and mesas on the horizon, the sky turns auburn as its yellows and purples blend together like milk being poured into coffee. Looking out onto the twilight grace of Mexico on this October evening from the balcony in Jeff Rosenstock's motel, all I can think about is what a tragedy it would be if some asshole built a fucking wall around it.
"Okay, do we have everybody now?" Rosenstock shouts from his room. The typically laid-back frontman is doing his best to mask the fact that he's a bit stressed. For the better part of two hours, he's been trying to wrangle a crew of 17 people—band members, friends, "helpers"—for a walk across the border to play a show in Tijuana, part of his record release party weekend.
"Where are Chris and Casey?" Rosenstock asks the group to a collective shrug. Chris and Casey resurface minutes later and it appears we're ready to go. "Wait, now where did Mike and Morgan go?" Then Mike and Morgan return but we've lost Chris and Casey again. At this point, someone makes an attempt at putting us all on the buddy system, assigning each of us a letter to spell out a word. But the only 17-letter word we can think of is "indestructibility," which doesn't help since the are a million i's in it.
Life has been going well for Rosenstock over the last two years since he brought a tearful end to his beloved, scrappy punk project, Bomb the Music Industry!, a band that caught on with an internet generation of punk kids due to its commitment to making music accessible and free to all. He married his longtime girlfriend, Christine, who is currently serving as his tour manager, merch slinger, and co-herder of people. He's been producing albums for artists like Laura Stevenson, The Smith Street Band, and Alkaline Trio's Dan Andriano. He's also successfully been transitioning to a solo career, his first venture on an established record label after years of grinding it out through the DIY route, and the cult around him seems to be stronger than ever.
Tonight, though, there are plenty of things for Rosenstock to stress about—the questionable legality of walking three bands across the border with a bunch of equipment and no work visas, the fact that half of the group's unplanned stop at Chili's on the drive down put us an hour behind schedule (though who on this Earth can resist the siren call of their baby back ribs?), and the very real possibility that nobody will even show up to the gig. But like most Americans, there's been a larger feeling of doom hanging over Rosenstock's head lately. It's a looming sense of persistent dread—la inquietud. Or, as he calls it in his new album title, WORRY.—all caps, with a period, and written on the cover in pink, neurotically squiggly letters.
It's hard to avoid it. While election years tend to bring with them uncertainty and fear, this one is a dystopian horror show. Every day for the last several months, America has woken up to an unending fever dream about an oafish billionaire terrorizing the country with his threats to rule with an iron fist—or a tiny orange one, anyway. Donald Trump, the Republican id stuffed into an ill-fitting, foreign-made suit, famously launched his Presidential campaign last June with the promise to erect "a great, great wall on our southern border," one he assured that Mexico would pay for. This was minutes after declaring Mexican immigrants to be criminals and rapists. Not only was it not a gaffe, it was a pillar of his political platform—his only one, in fact, save for a meaningless slogan on a goofy red hat. And while it feels like we've been locked in his ongoing hellscape of xenophobia, misogyny, and blatant racism forever, there's still an entire month of it left.
Rosenstock would never claim to have any solutions to the nation's woes, but on WORRY., he is incredibly good at pointing out the problems. While he's built a career as a punk/ska virtuoso, this record is angrier and faster, and even more speedy when performed live. On the drive through California, Rosenstock and bassist John DeDominici joked about how their runs through the album in practices always clock in a full five minutes shorter than the recorded version. It's also more expansive, stretching Rosenstock's sound to incorporate more epic elements in songs that all run together, leading a few reviews to call it "punk rock's Abbey Road," an album he says he's never even heard.
As we finally all gather up and start walking through the streets towards the border, I hear Rosenstock rehearsing to himself a string of responses to any potential questions border security guards might ask. "Hola, just here to play a small music... uh, gig." "We're just going to play a little rock music this evening." And my personal favorite: "Just looking to chill and bring some sweet jams to your fine country!"
It's all for nothing though since the disinterested border employees pass us through with a glance at our passports and a wave of the hand. Our gear had to be placed on a conveyor belt and run through a scanner, but there was no one there to actually monitor the results. (Hey wait a minute, it's almost as if a group largely comprised of white people gets preferential treatment by authority figures armed with giant guns? So weird.)
In the cab ride to the venue, I get to talking with our driver who tells me that all he does all night is transport gringos between the border entrance and the stretch of clubs and bars in town. "Are they always drunk?" I ask. "Si, yes, drunk. Very drunk."
The Plaza Fiesta, an outdoor strip of bars where the cabbies drop us off, is swarming with tipsy Mexicans and Americans, all united in their love of Saturday night imbibing and the carnal sins it leads to. The area is currently being reclaimed by nightlife following a period of cartel violence that plagued it in the late 2000s. In the open-air mall are now taco trucks, craft beer breweries, a posh martini club, a karaoke bar where nationalities blend together through the loud slurring of Bon Jovi songs, and The Mods Bar, a small rock venue hosting Rosenstock's show.
"Fifteen… 16… 17," Rosenstock says, taking a headcount of our group. "I mean, that's a pretty good turnout even if no one else shows up."
The Mods is mostly empty, save for a few punks already a few Tecates deep at the bar. Christine commandeers a table to display the handful of WORRY. LPs she brought, though since I'm not sure it's entirely legal for Americans to sell goods in other countries, let's just say they were, uh, free.
Despite the fortuitous timing of its release, most of WORRY. was actually written almost two years ago, around the time Rosenstock was preparing for his wedding, and though he aimed to write love songs, it was hard to focus on positives with everything going to shit around him.
On a personal level, Brooklyn's massive gentrification problem was threatening to force him and Christine out of their apartment and they struggled with the impracticalities of being artists in New York. Things weren't much easier on the road. The two were robbed while on tour in San Francisco, whose police department offered no help in recovering the instruments and clothes stolen from their van. Much of the record was written in frustration in Rosenstock's hotel later that night.
But more broadly, national news stories were weighing on Rosenstock. The trial of police officer Darren Wilson for the murder of 18-year-old black man Michael Brown, in which he was ultimately not indicted, consumed the daily news cycle for almost a year and sparked riots in Ferguson, Missouri. Similar cases echoed around the country in the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland. Police brutality was becoming more commonplace in the news and everyone on Facebook and Twitter seemed to have an opinion on it. The "loudness of social media," as Rosenstock puts it, amplified the deep-seated bigotry and hatred in the country. WORRY.'s liner notes dedicate the album to Garner, Gray, and "all victims of violence."
"I was trying to write a happy record about being in love and approach that in a way that's not corny or cheesy. But instead I wrote about police brutality," Rosenstock laughs.
The result is a loud, manic album that's not message-based, but reactionary—a true product of the fear and anger that fueled its writing. Its 17 tracks all run together like one, 38-minute panic attack. Rosenstock's label, SideOneDummy, has fully embraced its theme with a promotional WORRY. emergency survival kit, complete with a WORRY. flashlight, WORRY. Band-Aids, and WORRY. condoms. (Spoiler alert: No one used the condoms on this trip. That I know of, anyway.) The album's cover perfectly captures the duality of its creation: The word WORRY. written over a photo of friends joyously dancing at Rosenstock's wedding.
"Does Jeff have a lot of fans down here?" I ask Charlie, a local who helped set up the show.
"Well, at least one!" he says pointing to his chest.
I offer an unprompted apology to Charlie. I don't know why. Maybe I just feel gringo guilt about how America's politicians have recently portrayed his fine country, which has been quite hospitable to our group and filled us with many delicious tacos in our brief time here.
"Honestly, we don't care," he says. "We have our own shit to deal with. We elect actors and soccer players, for god's sake."
What do you make of Trump, I ask.
"We know he's an asshole, but we're not taking it out on all Americans. It's just sad to see so many people support him, supporting talk like that."
In the alleyway outside, I find Rosenstock alone and finishing off his last beer before his set time and we get sucked into one of those deep conversations that only seem to happen after midnight, where talk of politics and life meld into pure existentialism. People stagger past us as we lean up against the reverberating wall of the club and reflect on how fucked everything's gotten. "What do you think will happen to nights like this in the future?" I ask.
"Crossing borders seems like it'd be harder. But also, I don't know what I'm talking about," he says with a shrug. "No one knows what we're talking about. It seems pretty clear to me that if Trump gets elected, traveling internationally is gonna be a fucking pain. It's just bad for global relations. I base that on visiting other countries and things other people have told me. But honestly, I don't know."
That's what's so nerve-wracking about the possibility of a Trump presidency—its sheer unpredictability. This is a man who has vowed to jail his political opponents, blacklist press outlets who give him unfavorable coverage, punish women who have abortions, and deport record numbers of immigrants. Tomorrow, we will undoubtedly wake up to another abhorrent story about the bigot who is within striking distance of the most powerful position in the world, but from where we stand tonight, there's no point trying to guess what that will be.
After two openers, Hard Girls and Chris Farren, Rosenstock takes the stage. "Uh, wow," he says into the mic, looking amazed that the room has nearly filled with over 50 people. "Muchos gracias, et cetera."
While last night's record release show in Los Angeles may have bested tonight in attendance and energy, this show has something special about it. It feels like it exists in some alternate reality away from the noise—a place and a brief moment where nothing else in the world matters.
At one point between songs, Rosenstock's guitarist, Mike, jokingly starts the jangly intro to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones' "The Impression That I Get" before Rosenstock shames him for stopping. "Well you can't just tease it!" he says, prompting the band to play an impromptu version while the crowd breaks out into the universal language of skanking. A massive Mexican gentleman in a bandana and suspenders pushes his way to the front and stakes his claim as the band's designated Ben Carr. (If you're unfamiliar, Ben Carr is the lucky sonofabitch who gets paid to do nothing but dance onstage with the Bosstones every night.) For the life of me, I couldn't tell you why the entire band happened to know this 20-year-old song, or why third-wave ska is apparently such a popular American export down here, but if this is the impression the world gets from America, that seems fine with the band.
After the set, which includes a couple of extra songs following chants of ¡Otra!, Rosenstock sticks around for a few hugs and photos with fans. By the time I get to him, he appears to have sweated out much of his anxiety of the last 24 hours, maybe even of the last 24 months. He packs his guitar into his case, closing the lid to reveal a huge sticker of Donald Trump's face below the WORRY. logo.
"I was thinking about your question: What'll happen in the future?" he says with a smirk. "You know what? It's fine, I think. Everything will be fine."
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter - @danozzi