A Chat with Jeff Rosenstock, the Music Industry’s Favorite Music Industry Outsider
On the release of his manic new album 'POST-', Rosenstock takes guesses on how he went from underground punk hero to unlikely media golden boy.
Photo by Taji Ameen
Almost four years ago to the day, Jeff Rosenstock was sitting in the same spot on the couch in his Brooklyn apartment, telling me about the end of his scrappy but beloved punk outfit Bomb the Music Industry!. Not much has changed in here in that time. There are still boxes of records piled up in the corner and a Simpsons-heavy DVD collection against the wall. The only major addition is a Nintendo Switch on the coffee table. But outside this apartment, Jeff Rosenstock’s world has become very different.
Since stepping out of his Bomb bubble and into a new role as the frontman of a solo project, Rosenstock has, much to his surprise, quickly become something of a media darling. While he had previously enjoyed a healthy underground cult following in his Bomb years, he’s been legitimized as a respected music industry entity since venturing out on his own. His 2016 album WORRY. became the rock record that critics loved to champion. It got a sturdy 8.0 from Pitchfork, beat out Frank Ocean and two Knowles sisters for the number one spot on USA Today’s albums of the year list, and brought Rosenstock’s band to Last Call with Carson Daly. He’s been billed as everything from a musical pioneer to “one of the most important figures in modern punk.”
It’s been surreal watching Rosenstock’s media profile rise. Not because WORRY. isn’t as good as critics made it out to be. (It is.) And not because he’s lazy or undeserving. (Despite his proudly slacker demeanor, he’s actually one of the hardest working, most hands-on artists out there.) It’s just that, as one might gather from the name of his former band, Jeff Rosenstock is not someone who cares about his place in the music industry, an attitude that continues even as his acclaim rises. As a prime example: he capped off a celebrated performance at Pitchfork Festival last summer by announcing to the audience how much money his band was payed to be there (“Seventy-five hundred dollars!”). He also showed up to his photoshoot at the VICE office wearing a Death by Audio shirt (see above to admire the subtle dig).
So how does this guy, who gained recognition as a music industry anti-hero, get to enjoy career opportunities that most of his peers would kill for? How does he create his own rules and get everyone else to play by them? Upon the release of POST-, his surprise New Year’s Day release from Polyvinyl Records (his first since moving over from SideOneDummy after two full-lengths there), Rosenstock reflected on his improbable journey from punk figurehead to media golden boy.
Noisey: You’ve become an unlikely media darling in the last few years. What do you attribute that to?
Jeff Rosenstock: I don’t know, man. If I could attribute it to anything, I’d probably fuck that up. I don’t know why that’s happening. The last record did really good. SideOneDummy worked really hard. I think it’s because other people were involved. It’s because of SideOne, it’s because of [publicist] Jamie Coletta, it’s because of Greg Horbal who books us, it’s because of all these other people who I asked to help, because being able to find people that might like the music that I make has never been my strong suit. I’m not really a salesperson, I’m not very confident, and I’m not great at selling myself. And I don’t want to be that person that’s selling themselves. But I’ve never been able to reconcile how to tell people about music without trying to ram some shit down their throat without being a person that I don’t want to be, basically.
So I think working with those people and touring—AJJ taking us on tour, Modern Baseball taking us on tour, PUP showing us a lot of love and touring with them, Menzingers taking us on tour. Those are all really big things for us. And also Jack [Shirley, producer]. Jack makes a record sound really good.
You obviously have a history of being critical of the music industry but you’ve clearly made it work for you. How do you manage to walk that line, where you can still be a skeptic but exist inside this world?
I’m really honest about what I’m doing with everybody that I’m working with, and they’re all on the same page as me. Otherwise I wouldn’t be working with them. It’s nice, I have a lot of trust from the people at SideOne, I have a lot of trust from the people at Polyvinyl, I have a lot of trust from Greg that if I don’t wanna do something, I’m not gonna do it, and they’re gonna be like, “OK, we’re not gonna do it and you’re gonna be fine.” I think, laying the groundwork of Quote Unquote, people saw what the reaction was to Bomb where I did a lot of things nontraditionally. I think that gave me a little bit of leeway to do what I want to do, but also this attitude I have of: I’m going to do the thing I wanna do. Like, if nobody wanted to be involved in putting out a record for free on New Year’s Day, I was gonna put it out myself. And that’s not because I’m an asshole, I think. It’s because I have a way of… Like, I wanna do this cool thing and I don’t want it to get bogged down in all the shit.
When you’re dealing with a record label like SideOne or Polyvinyl, what are those initial conversations like?
Well, say with Polyvinyl. How did that come about?
Well, Polyvinyl, I’ve been a fan of theirs for a long time and then we started talking and I was like, “Here’s a thing I was planning on doing myself. I don’t know, you wanna do the vinyl for it?” And then it turned into us talking about doing things together. And I was like, OK, maybe these are cool people, and of course—they put out fucking Deerhoof and Xiu Xiu and Alvvays. That’s weird though because I’m not trying to talk about how to get signed or anything like that. But if you’re talking about that awkward conversation, it’s just basically me saying, “Hey, this is the thing I wanna do. Can we do it?” There are labels that I’m friends with internationally that didn’t do it because of that. It gets turned down sometimes.
It's such a bizarre business tactic to be like, “Hey, I’m gonna give this thing away for free. However, if you’re able to make some money off it by selling the vinyl or whatever, have at it.” It seems like an eject button you can push at anytime.
Yeah, it’s a bizarre business tactic because it’s not a business tactic. Also, I’d be lying if I said I don’t know how to argue the point from a business point of view, which is that every record is free on the internet anyway and it doesn’t matter. Polyvinyl were even more encouraging, like, “Let’s make it pay-what-you-want on Bandcamp too.” And I was like, “Fuck, yeah, let’s do it!”
But just to point out: It’s great that it’s working for you, but at the same time, you inherited this big cult following that you’d amassed in Bomb the Music Industry!. Obviously some new band is not gonna have the leisure to go to a label and make the same demands.
Yeah. But Bomb the Music Industry! started as a new band, and so did ASOB. And we did whatever the fuck we wanted in those bands, too. When Bomb the Music Industry! did it, nobody was doing it! And I was getting yelled at by other bands and shit. Like, “You don’t take this seriously.” And it was like, “No, I think that people can hear music through the internet for free and that’s what I want to do, why do you think it’s weird?”
I’m not trying to tell anybody else what to do, but I am trying to say: You can do it the way you want to do it. I’m doing the opposite of telling people what to do. I’m saying: Look at this fuckin’ weird way I can do it, and if that works, however you want to do it will work too.
You have this big following that will buy what you put out and go to your shows, so when you sign on with a label, what’s in it for you?
Well, I don’t have that big of a following.
But you have enough of a following that you can sustain.
Now. Because of SideOne. I don’t know if we could have done that before SideOne. So I guess what’s in it for me specifically is that you can get the record in stores. That was the first thing I was ever thinking about. I was like, I don’t know how to do distro. I really need help there. That’s why I went to SideOne, and then from working with SideOne I realized there were these other really helpful ways they could pitch in.
How do you think the label was helpful?
Honestly, just being smart people who I trust and could talk to.
It’s also probably nice to not be mailing out records every day by yourself.
Yeah, that’s true—I literally can’t tour and do the mailorder. It’s not possible. But we still do the mailorder when we’re home. I like doing mailorder. It’s like driving, where you’re doing a repetitive task for a while and it feels like you’re getting something done because you are getting something done, but there’s no pressure.
And knowing that every package you send out, someone’s gonna get a record in the mail and it’ll make their day.
Yeah, it is nice bringing bags of mail. But I think, to answer your question, getting some money to record so I don’t have to put it all up myself. Although I learn as time goes on that that’s not all that important because you just have to pay all that back later anyways. It’s basically a loan. So I feel like I follow through on approaches from record labels because I’m like: I know this is a good idea and I can’t quantify why but I feel like this will be a good idea.
What’s most important to you in the method of releasing music and being a touring musician? Is there anything that crosses a line for you?
Yeah, me and Greg are constantly talking about… well I’m constantly saying: Shows have to be all-ages, shows have to be cheap. He says that there’s only so long I’m gonna be able to do this, but for this tour I said I wanted it to be 15 bucks or less. I want to make it a show that people can afford to go to. And there’s rooms that we wanted to play that we can’t play on this tour because it’s not possible to make money at a lower ticket price. And to me, $15 doesn’t seem that low. Maybe I just need to adjust that I’m not playing at fucking Lost and Found anymore. But those are still my roots, and like H2O says, “Don’t forget your roots.” So those are things I won’t do. I don’t do commercials or anything like that unless somebody’s like, “Hey, c’mon, nobody’s gonna see this, wouldn’t it be a goof?” and then I’m like, “OK, it’ll be a goof.” There was a Google Play commercial that there was like, a snippet of the “Nausea” video in.
I know you have a stack of old Punk Planets around here somewhere.
Yeah, it’s in the hallway. I need to get rid of those.
Do you ever read those and think about how much the debates around punk have changed over the years? It used to be that things like barcodes or music videos were sticking points.
No one gives me too much shit about things regarding that. I didn’t get pushback when I signed to SideOne. I generally don’t get pushback from that more anti-capitalist punk side.
Does it still exist the same way?
I think it does, of course. But I don’t get shit about it, which makes me wonder if people are still questioning that kind of stuff. I kinda feel like the bigger it gets, though, people are gonna give me more shit about stuff, and I’m not looking forward to that. But whatever. All I can do at the end of the end of the day is make a record that’s undeniable. So at least if people say, “I think this guy sucks now” for some reason, they’ll also say “but this still is his best record.”
You strike a good balance between being an idealist and a realist.
I think I just try to be truthful about how I feel. I’m a person who would like to see a lot of changes and I think that people act really greedy and not empathetic towards each other and that’s really toxic. And as a person who works a lot, it’s just… you gotta work, basically! So I don’t know, that’s the idealism and realism for me. The realistic angle is like: Alright, well if you want to be idealistic about shit, there’s a lot of fucking work you have to do to make it work.
It seems like the best example of your personality and this space you’ve carved in the music industry is your Pitchfork Festival set. You got this prestigious slot on this festival and then break this sort of industry fourth wall by announcing how much money you got paid to play on stage.
That was just a last-second thing. I felt like I was up there talking shit on the corporate sponsors, because I felt no one was going to, and I feel like it’s worth acknowledging that we’re surrounded by ads and branding. But I went into it thinking that, but then at Pitchfork, it really wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t like fucking ten-dollar bottles of water—or maybe it was just not for me because I was backstage eating everything for free. So I’m just full-up on free food, talking shit on these sponsors who essentially paid my ticket to be there. And like, one of the sponsors was HBO’s Insecure, which is a good show that people put a lot of work into! So when we got up there, I thought it was important to say something because I didn’t think people would, but then it was like, “I’m a fucking dipshit. I need to tell these people how complicit I am in this.”
Would you not play a festival that was funded by say, a cigarette company? Or like, I know a lot of people took issue with Coachella because of its owner.
It would depend on the situation. I’m not gonna play a fucking Nazi rally or NRA convention, you know?
Good to hear.
But I’m still trying to come to terms that we played a few festivals last year—Northside too, and we played this Revolution Brewery Festival in Chicago. And all of those shows were really, really, really, really fun to play. And it was like, “Oh shit, our band has a good time doing this!” I’m still coming to terms with that. I didn’t know it’d be fun to play a festival. But just being outside and having space to run around, those are two things that everyone in our band loves!
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.
Listen to this week's VICE podcast about Jeff Rosenstock below: