After spending the past four years fully immersed in the Neil Young catalog, it’s only right that Jeff Rosenstock and Laura Stevenson have begun to emulate his views on technology. “Get rid of the internet, we didn’t earn it,” Rosenstock shouts, with Stevenson providing a more even-keeled harmony — “we didn’t use it properly.” In fairness, both artists have long had to balance their drive to democratize the music industry with pragmatism — even the most idealistic DIY artist will almost certainly have to use the internet as a means of distribution in 2022, putting them at the mercy of some tech mogul. But less than 24 hours after releasing Younger Still, their second Neil Young covers EP, they have more reason than usual to be inflamed.
Elon Musk’s $44-billion takeover of Twitter has just taken effect and the duo have settled on a kind of nihilistic optimism, that this might be the extinction level event that frees them from decades of spiritual bondage. “Kill Twitter for me so I don’t look at it anymore,” Rosenstock jokes, having yet to fully surrender like Stevenson, who has outsourced all social media management to her husband. Seeing as how three years separate the conception of this 4-song EP to execution, it’s worth pointing out how the project could have been far more prolific had they, like so many other their peers, embraced the possibilities of remote collaboration during the pandemic. Yet that approach would contradict the entire point of Younger Still and its predecessor — “let’s find a reason to hang out.”
Throughout most of their friendship, they rarely needed much of a reason or predetermination to collaborate. Rosenstock sees both EPs as a sort of throwback, “in the spirit of the periods when both of us were playing in six bands at the same time.” Occasionally, those projects would intersect, such as the 2009 split between Stevenson and Bomb the Music Industry!, the massively influential punk rock collective that Rosenstock fronted prior to forming the Death Rosenstock band. But as the two toyed with the possibility of recording a batch of Neil Young covers in 2019, the demands of adulthood and their individual successes would soon create an impassable distance. Though Rosenstock’s songwriting (and IRL) voice makes him innately suited to play the role of the neurotic New Yorker, his contributions to the Cartoon Network sitcom Craig Of The Creek helped make the long-considered move to Los Angeles a reality. Meanwhile, Stevenson was in her first trimester of pregnancy and desperately trying to avoid throwing up during the drives from upstate to recording sessions at Rosenstock’s home in Brooklyn. “I was just so nauseous the whole time, shoving saltines in my face,” she recalls.
Even with their technophobic leanings, we’re still canvassing the entirety of the United States via Zoom — Stevenson is in her Saugerties home, backed by a gigantic bookcase, whereas Rosenstock is flanked in the blindingly bright, 55-degree weather that Los Angeles passes off for “autumn.” Though separated by thousands of miles, the two finish each other’s sentences and swap stories about Jones Beach and MTV like they’re still hanging out in Long Island. Rosenstock and Stevenson see their impending 10-date, cross-country run as something of a paid vacation, albeit one where they’re still packing at the last minute. “It’s hard to describe it without making us sound unprepared,” Rosenstock laughs, as the two try to suss out the setlist in real time. But much like Younger Still, the tour exists to reconnect with the artistic and personal philosophy they’ve shared since their teens — “we should do this, life is short. I miss you. Let’s get in a car.”
Do you see recording cover songs as a break from writing original material or does it happen alongside it?
Jeff Rosenstock: I don’t look at it as taking a break from anything. At least for me, it’s an excuse to make stuff with Laura so we could have fun doing something and not really feel any pressure to write a good song. Because someone already did that! We just have to barely play.
Neil Young has written a lot of good songs and a lot of bad ones too, though.
Rosenstock: We haven’t covered any of the bad ones — Laura, are you upset about that? That we haven’t done “Motorcycle Mama”?
Laura Stevenson: Yeah, I really like “Piece Of Crap.” That’s always been my favorite “bad Neil Young song.” When I was young, I thought it was the funniest song I’d ever heard in my life.
Rosenstock: Maybe this tour will just be us playing a long “Piece Of Crap.”
Stevenson: If we do that and deconstruct a bad Neil Young song, we might find out that it’s actually fucking genius.
Rosenstock: That’s likely, I’d say.
I’m no expert on Neil Young, but I’ve definitely heard “Piece Of Crap” and know there are people who’ll vouch for it, especially since it came at a time when he was reestablishing himself for a new generation as the “godfather of grunge.” But what about the “bad songs” from when he was actively trying to break his record deal?
Rosenstock: Like if we did “Kinda Fonda Wanda?” But yo…I watched the video for “Kinda Fonda Wanda” off Everybody’s Rockin’, it’s kind of a good song! It’s stupid, but it’s still kind of a good song.
Stevenson: It’s rockin’!
After you released Still Young, were there any fans saying that this EP introduced them to Neil Young?
Stevenson: I feel like anyone who knows me has listened to Neil Young. He’s huge and I’m really obscure so how could you know me and not know who Neil Young is?
Rosenstock: You’ve probably gone through the A-list…
Stevenson: Before you get to that G-list.
Rosenstock: We didn’t do good enough to inspire anybody to say, “hey, that’s nice.”
Stevenson: Hey, my dad likes it.
Rosenstock: Laura’s dad likes it, John [DeDomenici, Death Rosenstock bassist]’s dad likes it. A lot of dads out there are happy about it.
You can do worse than breaking the “dad rock” demographic.
Rosenstock: Yeah, why isn’t there anything for older men, huh?
Maybe in 20 years, “dad rock” cover albums will be of Green Day or something like that. But as people who came up in Long Island’s punk scene, I’m curious about how the two of you first got introduced to Neil Young. When I was listening to Green Day and coming of age in the mid-90s, I mostly knew Neil Young as “that classic rock guy who Pearl Jam really likes.”
Rosenstock: I knew Neil Young as “Rockin’ In The Free World” and that he made a record with Pearl Jam that I didn’t really care about. Also, Neil Young on MTV Unplugged. When I was young, I don’t think I wanted to listen to anything that wasn’t just either really bouncy or in-your-face. Like pop or punk or metal or rap. I always knew Neil Young was good, but I listened to Harvest and was like, “I don’t care about this.” Because, “A Man Needs a Maid” — terrible song! “Old Man,” kind of a terrible song! There’s a lot of terrible songs on Harvest, this is my axe to grind with the world of Neil Young fans. But then I texted you and Mike, your husband — like, “hey, where do I get started,” because I feel like I want to like Neil Young and I don’t like this [Harvest]. You recommended After The Gold Rush and Comes A Time and I liked them both. In particular, I was listening to After The Gold Rush on a tour for a long time and did a deep dive when I was older, late 20s, I guess. It’s not that old, but older than when I was like, “is it Biohazard? Because if it’s not Biohazard, I’m not listening to it.”
Stevenson: My dad is the biggest Neil Young fan in the world. That’s the reason he has a computer, he just lives in the message boards for Neil bootlegs and is very deep in the world of nerd Neil fans. There was a stretch of time that, whenever I was at his house in the morning, he would put on Comes A Time, and that was the music I woke up to in the living room. That record really resonated with me and I love it. It’s those songs from your childhood that are just the soundtrack of your life, you’re not really diving in, it’s kinda fed to you. So later in my 20s, I would go deeper, the same thing with Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead was always on, I was going to their concerts and Jerry Garcia Band concerts, like…“oh, there’s that chorus that I like and there’s a lot of jamming that I don’t like.” But when I saw Neil, I liked the jamming because it was very interesting and rough and super distorted. I liked Green Day and punk bands in the early-to-mid-’90s, so I liked distorted guitars and Neil was doing that. Like, oh, you can be a band that my dad likes but also be rockin’, in a way that I like.
Rosenstock: You saw Neil Young a bunch when you were a kid?
Rosenstock: Jones Beach?
Stevenson: Jones Beach, Madison Square Garden…my dad would take me to shows all the time and my mom was mad. Whenever it was my dad’s weekend, he’d take us to shows. I had to make an invention for a class assignment in fourth grade, and I was always so embarrassed that I was wearing wax earplugs and they were always getting stuck in my hair and it looked so disgusting. So my invention was just a headband, but you can wear it over your wax earplugs and no one has to know you’re a loser.
Do you remember what grade you got?
Stevenson: Probably not a good grade. All I had to do was put a headband over my ears, I didn’t have to do anything.
Rosenstock: It could pass as an invention in second grade…you didn’t put any glitter glue on it?
Jeff, were your parents taking you to any shows as a kid?
Rosenstock: No! Maybe later, but I didn’t go to concerts with my parents all that much. We saw KC And The Sunshine Band play for free in New York one time and then my parents drove me to Warped Tour.
Stevenson: They were really different experiences, but I didn’t have MTV, so I was completely disconnected. I didn’t have an older sibling who showed me cool stuff. I was just trying to find stuff on the radio so I was just being fed everything.
Rosenstock: We did have good radio in Long Island, 92.7, WDRE…
What was it about After The Gold Rush that resonated with you where Harvest didn’t?
Rosenstock: The songs that sounded like a Defiance, Ohio record. That song “After The Gold Rush” sounds like a normal person just singin’ his heart out — minimal arrangements, good ass songs!
Stevenson: After The Gold Rush is the one I suggested to Jeff as a songwriter. Comes A Time has a lot of good hooks, but After The Gold Rush had more of a…romantic composer [feel], very emotional. There’s a beautiful color to it that I thought would interest Jeff as a writer who’s interested in the individual voice.
Rosenstock: There’s a lot of heart in how he’s singing. On Younger Still, you brought TWO songs from American Stars & Bars into the pile, which is a record that I have almost never thought about. It’s a good record.
Stevenson: I like those songs especially, and as a younger person, I was just drawn to the cover.
Rosenstock: The cover is awesome, it’s punk.
Stevenson: It’s so sick, I really wish we had found a way to make [our cover] a drunk dog and a drunk dog stripper…
Rosenstock: To whoever’s reading this, we need to find out whether it’s painted or a collage. I feel like it’s painted.
Stevenson: I feel like it’s a collage.
Rosenstock: Didn’t Harry Dean Stanton’s son make it? It looks like an oversaturated collage, it looks like a Thermals album cover. You guys are laughing at me! F*ck you, Laura! F*ck you, Ian! It’s 2022, if there’s an idea that people disagree with, I have to double down.
With that attitude, I can’t believe you’re not gonna miss Twitter when it’s gone! In the meantime, were there any songs that you tried out that didn’t make the cut?
Rosenstock: “Borrowed Tune,” “On The Beach,” “Like A Hurricane”…was there another one that didn’t make it?
Stevenson: I had an idea for “Hey Babe” — “we need to make this into an Antarctigo Vespucci song, super poppy and full-band.” And it didn’t end up that way, but it ended up way better than I would’ve imagined it. The songs that really resonated with us were the ones that melodically could work in any format.
Rosenstock: The way that we record, there was no way to make [a full-band “Hey Babe”] sound good — it’s two of us in a room, picking up things and playing it at the same time. It’s not a big, “two guitars, drums and bass” thing happening. Out of the pile, “Like A Hurricane” was gonna be such a rocker. But like, what are we gonna do for eight minutes? That’s not a great place to start if you’re making a record in four days. It was stuff we were fucking around with, like oh, “‘Razor Love’ sounds kinda good? Does this kinda work with you playing guitar and me playing drums and signing these parts?” Were we talking about doing “Walk On”? “Looking For A Love,” “Barstool Blues,” “Don’t Cry No Tears”…the Cyndi Lauper version [ed note: he might be referring to “Don’t Cry No More,” which is a completely different song]. Great, it’s gone, who needs it!
What are the plans for the setlist on the upcoming tour?
Stevenson: We’re still discussing it, we’ll figure it out.
Rosenstock: We’ll play some of our own songs, our hope is that it works. It’ll be a nice, intimate…intimate is the wrong word. Real casual. And hopefully, we don’t take “casual” too far.
Stevenson: We will be taking no requests. [laughs]
Will anyone else be joining the two of you on stage?
Rosenstock: It seems like it’s just the two of us for now, we’re figuring out how to arrange these things. Go see the shows!
Stevenson: We like the way that each other drives. Jeff’s my favorite driver on tour, and I’d like to think I’m your favorite driver on tour.
Rosenstock: You are and you’re my favorite shotgun.
Stevenson: And you’re my favorite shotgun!
Stevenson: You’re way better than Matt was.
Rosenstock: I’m way better than Matt [Keegan] from Bomb The Music Industry! who turned off Laura’s music while he was asleep in shotgun.
Stevenson: The worst shotgun of all time.
What makes for a good driver on tour?
Stevenson: Safety, space.
Rosenstock: And if you could do it with safety and space…speed. I’ll say it!
Stevenson: Gentle speed.
Rosenstock: The three S’s: safety, space, and speed. And sobriety.
Stevenson: There’s four.
Rosenstock: And staying awake.
Stevenson: Sensitivity. Sense of humor.
Are the two of you locked into future Neil Young cover EPs or are you considering pivoting to a different classic rock artist?
Rosenstock: Nah… I don’t know what happened. I thought about covering some shit that’s on that first f*cking thing [Still Young] and I was, like, “Laura you wanna do this?” It wasn’t like, “what’s our angle to break into this thing as two friends chopping it up together” or anything like that.
Stevenson: It would have to only be other Neils — Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka…
Rosenstock: This is why we work well together, I’ll do both of those. Neil Hamburger…
Rosenstock: He’s a murderer. We don’t cover known murderers.
He certainly doesn’t abide by the Five S’s of Good Tour Driving.
Rosenstock: He’s got speed. At some point in 2023, we’ll record more songs and put those together with the ones we finished in Brooklyn but didn’t put out. It’ll be a 12” vinyl like, “here’s all the stuff we did together for a couple of years.” Let’s assume the tour goes well, like, we don’t cancel on day two because, hey we’re bad.
Stevenson: We don’t have COVID…
Rosenstock: We don’t have COVID, ticket sales were good, it’s just you don’t want to see this! Assuming that doesn’t happen, it’s just cool we have a nice document of the time we hung out together as we were both growing up in our lives and taking on new weird shit and communicating together through music and this weird anchor. It’s cool that we have these moments in time captured that have nothing to do with us writing it out — we just made this stuff together.