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Jeff Rosenstock wasn’t planning on releasing a soundtrack to a global pandemic. In fact, Rosenstock’s latest punk rock opus was completed in February, close to a month before stay-at-home orders were issued across the United States. A surprise release date was set for July, echoing the strategy employed for Rosenstock’s last album Post-, which fell out of the sky on New Years Day in 2018. But the release was pushed up a few months in light of the current reality of the world. “Once it became really clear that this sh*t is all completely f*cked, we were like, ‘Okay, well, what’s the earliest day on the Polyvinyl release calendar that has some space so I can put this out?'” Rosenstock tells me over the phone from his new home in Los Angeles.
No Dream is a record that finds Rosenstock diving head-first into his own psyche, as well as the psyche of the world at large. The music is heavier and faster throughout than it was on Post- or 2016’s Worry, both of which were broken up by more laid-back, introspective numbers. When asked whether this shift to a heavier sound was intentional to accompany the weight of the lyrical material, Rosenstock quickly demurs. The reason is actually much more simple: “There were no slower or quieter songs I was writing that felt particularly interesting to me… I think I was just craving a fun punk record to listen to.”
It was also important for the band as a whole, which has been on the road tirelessly since 2016, to go as hard as they could on a recording. “When we’re on tour in America I’m driving a lot of the time,” he says, “so I wanna listen to some f*cking punk, I wanna listen to some ska, I wanna stay up, I wanna listen to some loud sh*t, I wanna listen to some rap sh*t where rappers are going super hard, that kind of stuff. And as a band we’re always trying to do things that we think are sick and that feel fun to do. It makes me smile personally anytime we’re doing super heavy stuff or super chuggy stuff.”
While working on the record in Oakland with producer Jack Shirley, Rosenstock would often wonder if he and the band were going too far on their quest for the heaviest and chuggiest sound. It was not uncommon for him to turn to Shirley and ask something along the lines of, “Does this guitar sound like it’s actually playing notes or is it just all fuzz and all distortion?” To Shirley’s credit, he was able to take the band’s cacophony and channel it into something deliberate and truly enveloping. Rosenstock notes, “It’s fun recording with Jack because we’re all in the mindset of all the time just being like if it’s gonna be loud then it should be f*cking loud and you should blow it the f*ck up, you know?”
With No Dream, Rosenstock has once again outdone himself and officially cemented his position as a punk rock savior for a generation disenfranchised and left to dry by the American establishments. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
I’m used to seeing you around the Brooklyn scene. What’s it like living in LA?
It’s really hard to say because we moved out here, I caught up on a bunch of work that I missed since we were packing. Then like the first week of March, I thought, “Okay, this is where my schedule clears up and I’m gonna get to see what everything is like.” As far as like the f*ckin’ pandemic report, we have the stay-at-home order indefinitely passed for right now, so I don’t know. It’s great. Nothing but more hope and good times on the horizon, definitely.
Everyone’s happy and nothing’s gone wrong.
Why aren’t they putting that in the news?
I’ll put it in the news, why not? I’ll write it down: everything is great and nothing is going wrong.
Yeah! Good! Finally.
So, going to the music, thank you for releasing an album that made me feel some semblance of energy. I’m sitting here listening to Big Thief all day thinking, “This is what my life is like now.” And then No Dream comes out of nowhere and it was the first time where I was like, “Sick, this is exactly what I needed to hear” and it made me sit up. So thank you for that.
Oh, thanks, man! Thank you for listening to it. Thanks for caring about it.
So, what does it mean to you to be releasing this album that a lot of people, myself included, are treating as the soundtrack to their existential dread?
This might just be a self-fulfilling f*ckin prophecy by me saying it out loud, but I just hope that once we’re all through this, this record doesn’t have the effect of looking at an old picture of an ex or something and being like, “Those were dark times, I can’t f*ck with this anymore.” I don’t know. I feel bad that any of us are experiencing existential dread, I think that is how I feel.
Even though the album was completed before this pandemic really hit, it seems like some of the themes that you’re talking about are even more applicable viewed through the lens of our current moment. Have current events shifted the way you hope someone will approach this record?
I just want anybody to approach anything that I do however they feel is appropriate. Like, I haven’t re-contextualized anything cause I know what the songs are about for me. But it was very surprising once I started showing this record to people who were like, “Holy sh*t this relates to all this stuff happening with the pandemic.” It never dawned on me that would be the case. When we decided to put it out early, I kind of figured it might not even resonate with anybody at all. But, at the same time, the fact that it even relates at all can be a little frustrating, in a larger sense.
I feel like I’ve been talking in my songs for the last few records about these systemic issues that just keep getting worse and worse. It’s frustrating that that kind of sh*t is still relatable. I would love to have put this record out in a world where it’s kind of anachronistic because we’ve actually passed gun control measures and people don’t go into schools regularly with f*cking assault weapons and kill people. I would prefer that to having it resonate, of course.
So what do you think is the role of punk rock, protest music, and political music in 2020?
I think more about ’70s reggae records that I listened to, Jimmy Cliff songs and Toots And The Maytals. Motown stuff too, like Stevie Wonder records and sh*t. It was stuff that was political and they were talking about strife but in a way where you can feel less alone while you’re listening to it. I think the stuff that I listen to is kind of ingrained in me — ska and reggae and political pop stuff from another era. Stuff that will hopefully get people to open their eyes and pay attention to things that are going on, but also you can hopefully just be there for somebody who sees what’s going on and can listen to a thing and be like, “F*ckin yeah! Right!”
This record especially seems like it’s a balancing act handling struggles that are both internal and societal. How do you strike that balance to make the songs personal, but also worldly?
I don’t really think about it like that. It’s kind of like a thing I figure out later when other people hear the record and tell me that I did it. I think that they’re all one in the same. I kind of changed the way I wrote lyrics a little bit when we started working on Worry because I really did focus mostly on my internal sh*t and treating it entirely as a journal for what I was feeling. I wanted to get to a point where I could express what I believe, which is that we experience the systemic failures of our countries and people full of hate, at the same time we’re experiencing whatever personal things we’re going through, whatever personal growth we’re trying to reach, whatever personal way we’re just trying to figure out how to be happy.
I think I’m trying to approach it all as one thing, because that’s how it feels to me. It feels like one big jumble of emotions all the time. They try to corral you into that jumble via how things are reported to keep your attention moving onto different tragedies so that you can’t even f*cking process anything! We’re in this sh*t storm, man, and within the sh*t storm it’s unclear. I think that’s where there appears to be a balance between these things, when it’s really a tornado of what the f*ck is going on.
Are you able to distill what the dream is that you’re saying there is none of?
There’s a bunch of dreams. If I told you an answer to that question it would be whatever I thought of within these ten seconds, and it would be a lie. So I’ll say, it’s intentionally open-ended, much in the way that Post- was.
Personally, I hear “no dream” as “no American Dream.” The album, too, seems to reflect something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, especially during the pandemic, which is the narrative that our generation is the new Lost Generation. I read an article the other day on The Atlantic with the literal title “Millennials Don’t Even Stand a Chance”.
Yeah, but a chance to do what? To buy a house? You could rent a house. You could live in an apartment. Whatever they dangle in front of you as the thing that you should aspire to, could be a thing to just distract you from what your own personal feelings are, and what you would like to do, and how you would like to treat other people. There’s always something super expensive put in front of you that’s like, “If you don’t get this then you’re a f*cking failure, and you can’t grow up.” In my mind, I feel like the last however many years have been set up to prevent our generation from getting ahead in a lot of ways. I think this is a symptom of a system that was set up to increase income inequality.
That f*cking headline is there to get you anxious and look at it, then look at the ads that are there accompanying it so you can be like, “I don’t stand a chance, unless I get this f*cking weighted blanket, and then I’ll be great!” It’s scary in a time when our only interactions with each other, because of this pandemic, are often through media. Are often through these channels that will have ads there for you. That sh*t is f*cking scary.
And I bet when I hang up on this call with you I’m gonna get a targeted ad for a weighted blanket.
And you’re gonna get that weighted blanket because it’s gonna fix it all!
No Dream is out now on Polyvinyl Records. Listen and pick up the album on vinyl here.