Jeff RosenstockPhoto by Christine Mackie, courtesy of Polyvinyl Record Co.
Some things have changed over the years, but a constant for Jeff Rosenstock is that his music and artistic ethos remain of and for the people. Whether through his beloved, seminal bands or his recent acclaimed solo work, he’s able to connect with listeners in a meaningful ways.
So, in addition to a few questions Houston Press had for him ahead of his tour stop at White Oak Music Hall this Friday, we asked readers for a question or two. After the long hiatus away from his devoted fans, Rosenstock seemed excited to connect with them in any fashion afforded.
The best way is still through live shows and Rosenstock built a reputation on energetic, tour de force performances dating back to early projects like Arrogant Sons of Bitches and the influential and revered music collective Bomb the Music Industry! We ask how it feels to be back in venues with fans following the long, pandemic-related layoff, in support of NO DREAM, one of 2020’s best-reviewed records.
“It’s crazy, for a lot of reasons. It’s just nice to connect with people over that record, NO DREAM, that we made. Those songs are close to us, they’re close to me,” he said. “I like when it’s supposed to be kind of shared experiences. I like putting out records without telling anybody because I like the shared feeling of excitement and stuff like that. It’s just really nice to be able to do that again.”
Rosenstock does it all. He’s a songwriter — a particular strength — a multi-instrumentalist, a producer, the music composer for the Emmy-nominated animated children’s series Craig of the Creek and a frequent collaborator on projects with other artists and friends. He’s even recently sung in Korean, a feat he dared as a member of The Bruce Lee Band, which is led by fellow veteran ska musician and activist Mike Park. When we bring it up, he laughs heartily.
“That’s just pretty sick that I get to be in a ska band with Mike and Dan (Potthast) whose ska music I grew up listening to and Kevin (Higuchi) who’s just like the best ska drummer. I don’t know, I’ll sing in Korean. It was fun,” he said.
We ask what else he’d like to try in music and his response morphs into a run-down of the things he feels he doesn’t do all that well, in true Rosenstock fashion, some would say. His songs often speak to self-doubt and anxiety and their directness resonates with listeners in an age filled with uncertainty.
“I tried booking bands for a little bit and I wasn’t good at it, I didn’t like doing it. I liked all the people I met booking Bomb the Music Industry! tours. I don’t think I’m top notch at doing that. Like, I could put a few shows together but that’s something that I’ve tried and I’m like, ‘I don’t think so,’” he admitted. “A lot of the business stuff is stuff that I’ll try, I’ll dip my toes in, but I’ll usually be like, ‘Ehhh, I don’t know,’ you know what I mean? I think I’m a bad salesman. I’m bad at pitching something. All that part of music where you have to be good at being front-facing and selling people on shit, I’m not good at that and I’m not going to try to do additional versions of that.
“As far as music music though, I don’t know. I’ll try anything. I can’t really play brass instruments. I’m not a good drummer, I’m not a great mixer. I’m trying to get better at mixing but I’m not that great at it,” he said. “I’ve never done a movie. I’d like to do a movie, that would be a cool thing to do. Does that answer any of your questions? Did I go too off the rails? Am I ignoring the initial question?”
Despite the list of self-identified shortcomings he reeled off, we noted he has allowed himself to stretch and try new things throughout his career.
“I’ve been very obsessed with music since I was a kid, you know? I think at a certain point if you’re doing something because it’s fun it doesn’t really matter if you fail at it. I just kind of wanted to try a bunch of stuff and I think I got used to trying things that I was bad at and kind of being a little bit more fearless in trying bigger things, like composing for the cartoon, for example. I think it’s all rooted in it’s fun, it’s something that I want to do, and I just try and trust that if I continue to have fun and keep that part of my heart into it, whatever I turn out at least it won’t have been a total waste and hopefully won’t be bad.”
Most of what Rosentock has done has not only not been bad it’s been lauded, especially the solo work he’s released since BTMI! disbanded. Although he emerged from a DIY music scene and is attached to ska music and folk punk - arguably two of the most derided genres by music purists - he’s largely escaped negative critiques. Just another sign of the power of well-written songs we suggest, but ask if he can recall any slings and arrows directed at his music and what it’s like to now be a critical darling, of sorts.
“It feels new to all of us. The solo project or whatever, this current band, has only been around five or six years, but yeah, Bomb the Music Industry! got a review in Australia where they compared us to Weird Al Yankovic. There’s been shit that’s been written because some of that music’s crazy, you know?
“Mostly we just never got anything. We would try, with Bomb or with the band before, ASOB, we would send our stuff to magazines and newspapers and we’d never hear anything back and I think that’s because we were doing it ourselves. Which is lame,” he said, revealing his ongoing belief in the DIY aesthetic. “We mostly just didn’t get anything, so when we started getting anything at all — and the fact that it was positive — it was just completely weird and crazy to all of us because we’re all so used to being in bands where it’s just the other way, nobody is saying anything.”
We finally get to a couple of reader questions and he graciously takes time for them even with a sound check beckoning. Reader Eric Smith said his favorite Rosenstock song is “Scram,” from NO DREAM, an impossibly catchy tune with a bit of a plot twist that gets a reworking as “SKrAm” on SKA DREAM, the reissue of last year’s record which presents each NO DREAM song’s ska doppelganger. Smith wrote “’Scram’ because it rocks and he speaks for me. How does he feel about the responsibility of speaking for me?”
“Who could say how I really feel because when I’m speaking for him I am completely absent of my own thought,” he waxed philosophically and comically. “Speaking for him. Do you think he means literally?”
We share a laugh and surmise Smith is probably expressing what many Rosenstock fans feel, a closeness to him because of his unvarnished self-examination of his place in a sometimes perplexing world. Does he feel the responsibility of being a spokesman for many who feel as he does?
“It kind of washes out. It does feel kind of heavy and I don’t feel like I’m in any way a perfect person who hasn’t fucked up a ton of things in my life. I just feel like a normal person, so speaking for anyone else, that kind of thing, could feel heavy but then on the other side of it I’m really so grateful that anything I’m making is meaning anything to anybody at all. It’s incredible and really nice and it’s like a thing I never really expected when I was just kind of unable to focus on anything but music.
“I just try to keep my head down and keep on charging and if I think something’s fucked up, I want to talk about it,” he said.
Is this the face of the voice of a generation? Many music fans say it is.
Photo by Christine Mackie, courtesy of Polyvinyl Record Co.
Another question comes from Micah Butler, who wants to know if Rosenstock - who has been described as the “great uncle” of DIY music - would consider playing an upstart DIY music festival in Denver? Once we determine that this also may not be a literal question but one which examines Rosenstock’s proximity to today’s DIY panorama and those he’s inspired in it, he launches in.
“As far as just playing a DIY festival, that always just kind of unfortunately is like is it something that I’m able to do while I’m working on Craig of the Creek, or when we’re going to be on tour? That’s usually more of a logistic thing. Of course you would, if it made sense.
“It’s weird. The places we are playing, where we’re at right now, they’re not DIY venues, pretty much. We’re not playing house shows or art spaces very much these days but that’s mostly just because it wouldn’t work anymore. Which sucks, but it’s good because it’s bigger places, I guess. That’s just kind of my favorite shit, though. I really like playing those kinds of things, I really like doing it.
“Those are shows I like going to,” he continued. “I like going to house shows and just being around that community. I think with music it’s easy to get swept up in a lot of industry kind of shit, whether it’s major stuff or indie stuff. It’s really easy to get competitive or try to figure out what makes sense from a business standpoint and get caught up in certain things. I feel like in the DIY community, at least the one that we came up in, it was a lot of people that just wanted to goof off and make jokes and try and solve problems or at least talk about solving big problems. All that stuff is still very near and dear to my heart and of course we’d play a thing if we were able to do it and it made sense.”
We end not with a question but a reader shout-out from Johanna Rollins, who described Rosenstock as “the millennial Ian MacKaye, but better.” Johanna was once Josh, she said, and traveled around Texas to BTMI! shows. Rosenstock seemed to recall the BTMI! tattoos Rollins had (and still does) and was happy to hear from an old fan.
“Hello Johanna! Thanks for sending your love,” he said. “If that’s an email, you can just email her back and say Jeff says hello.”
Jeff Rosenstock’s NO DREAM Tour stops at White Oak Music Hall at 7 p.m. Friday, December 10. With special guests Slaughter Beach, Dog and Oceanator. Check the venue’s website tor COVID protocols. All ages, $20.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.