Music

Jeff Rosenstock Talks About The Making Of His Excellent New Surprise Album, ‘Post-‘

Hiro Tanaka

Jeff Rosenstock is so busy these days that he barely has enough time to make music. Between a rigorous tour schedule, and a new side gig as a composer for the new Cartoon Network show, Craig Of The Creek, the 35-year-old punk-rock lifer had to cobble together a week’s worth of time to record a new album, Post-, the followup to his most popular LP to date, 2016’s Worry. Finally, right after Thanksgiving, Rosenstock and his band hurried into a studio in East Palo Alto, California, and banged out the tracks for Post- in a marathon 86-hour session.

Looking back on the experience just over one month later, Rosenstock admits that the album might’ve benefitted from another day or two. Not that there are any apparent rough edges or loose ends on the record — Post- might very well be Rosenstock’s best album yet. Besides, he didn’t give himself much leeway on the release date. All along, the plan was to release Post- without advance warning on the first day of 2018, as a benediction for a new year in the wake of a deeply weird and contentious 2017.

“I wanted to do something that I thought would make people happy,” he says, “or at the very least do something that’ll give people something to have in the morning on the first day of the year, even if they don’t like it.”

Rosenstock does that a lot — the mile-a-minute talker will express an earnest desire to write songs that can uplift his growing audience, and play energetic shows that can at least temporarily alleviate their burdens and stresses. But then he’ll instinctively undercut himself lest he sound pompous or self-aggrandizing. “I came up from punk and it’s about no heroes, you know what I mean?” he says.

But the fact is, for those who still put faith in underground outsiders to stand against the crush of mainstream political and cultural hegemony, Rosenstock really has emerged as a kind of hero, if only for his ebullient resistance to those oppressive forces. Rosenstock’s specialties are cries of joy seemingly motivated by sheer terror — while anxiety about political unrest and tech-addled alienation pervade his lyrics, the music transforms those stress nightmares into rousing, unifying anthems that somehow manage to chase the demons away. Even more than on Worry, Rosenstock’s burgeoning talents as a tunesmith have really blossomed on Post-, though the fury at the heart of these earworms ensures that the hooks draw blood.

Take the seven-and-a-half-minute opening track “USA.” Like much of the album, “USA” seems to allude, without explicitly referencing, the 2016 presidential election. “I saw the sign but it was misleading,” Rosenstock hollers. “I fought the law, but the law was cheating / Screaming for help, but somebody keeps on telling me to settle down.” After a long ambient passage in the middle of the song punctuated by a defeated mantra, “We’re tired, we’re bored,” Rosenstock roars back and turns those words into a rallying cry, complete with cheerleader-style chants and handclaps, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

While Rosenstock notes that “USA,” along with about half of Post-, was partly written during the same period as the Worry sessions, there’s no denying that the specter of you-know-who looms over the record. Soon after the 2017 inauguration, Rosenstock retreated to upstate New York to work on a new batch of songs, including “Powerlessness,” which pleads for quiet contemplation during a time of wall-to-wall Internet commentary: “Shriek into the toxic well / Where everybody’s screaming for themselves / and leaves no space to process feeling lost.”

The spacious, and at times epic, sound of Post- is an attempt to carve out that space musically. The result is a record that feels like a generous gesture, an invigorating beacon of hope amid so much despair. Read our conversation about the record below.

The reductive interpretation of Post- is that it’s an anti-Trump record. But do you feel like that’s limiting? To me it sounds like a companion to Worry. A lot of the anxieties on this record were there for you before the election.

I wouldn’t say any interpretation is reductive. The whole point of art is to let people take what they want to take from it. For me, it’s about the feeling of being betrayed and being bullied. I was trying very hard to make it feel open enough that it wasn’t, like, hyper-political. People who don’t like Trump already don’t like Trump. People who like Trump are not changing their minds. That’s the thing at the crutch of the last year for a lot of us, that [feeling where] you’re just like, ‘Oh my God, it’s really hard to fix this.’

At least half the record was written immediately after the inauguration. I just went up to the mountains — my friends had a place that they let me go to for a little bit, to demo and just get out of the city. [But] of course I don’t like Trump. I don’t think that’s particularly interesting. I’m tired of talking about Trump. I want to talk about us and what we’re going to do. There’s not a lot of empathy in this world anymore, on either side.

In “To Be A Ghost” from Worry, you talk about how the Internet breeds apathy, in that we can watch people being murdered by police and not feel a human connection to it. But now it’s almost like the opposite effect has set in — everyone is screaming constantly about how the world is going to end that it induces this paralysis, which you sing about in the new song “Powerlessness.”

I don’t think a lot of us really know what to do, because we’re trying to make sure that we don’t have a racist immigration policy. Or we’re trying to make sure our planet’s going to be fine for us to live on. There’s all kinds of things that we have to fight that I think it’s really hard for anybody, myself included, to have time for some self-reflection, or even just have some space to deal with it. It’s hard to know what to do if you don’t give yourself a breath and understand what’s happening. It’s like being in a fucking batting cage, and the ball thing is turned up to max speed and you’re just like, “Oh, shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.”

Unlike most of us, who are just stuck in the bubbles of our daily lives, you tour the country constantly and visits all sorts of different communities. How has that affected your view of contemporary America?

Touring in 2017, it was my goal to make people happy, because it’s hard to fight anything if you forget what joy feels like. If there was a chance to say something that I thought might be a good thing to say, I would. But a lot of people are saying a lot of things, and very few people are just like, ‘All right, let’s give you 45 minutes to fucking scream and not have to think about the other things.’ Everyone I met on this tour seemed like they were just happy to be around each other.

2017 was very bad politically and culturally, but it was a breakthrough period for you professionally. Was that a strange dichotomy?

Of course! It’s weird to be like, oh shit, I’ve been working on something for like 20 years and it’s finally taking off during the worst year in American history. There’s times where it’s hard to not feel guilty about things going well for you when things aren’t going well for other people.

That goes back to, well, try and do whatever you can to take the things that are going well for you and use it to make things be good for other people. That’s what I’ve tried to do a little bit. I mean, I’m talking pretty fucking altruistically about just trying to play rock shows. Like this is what happens when you’re in a band for 10 years that doesn’t practice and then your band starts practicing. It’s like, yeah, we’re really stepping it up now!

Did knowing that this new album would be heard by more people than the last one affect how you made it?

It encourages me to want to make it better. I’m not a person with a lot of self-confidence, so to have other people have confidence in what I’m doing makes me feel a little bit more confident. Like, I can make a song that’s really spacey that’s more akin to some of the stuff that I like to listen to at night, instead of trying to make everything feel like an anthem. It’s the opposite of pressure for me. It seems like I’m on the right track, and all I gotta do is keep putting my head down, and write songs the way that I write songs. If the last one did good, hopefully this one will do good. If this one doesn’t do good, well, the last one did good, that was pretty sick. I’m back to where I’ve been for like the last 15 years and I’m fine with that.

A lot of this record was written before Worry came out. I’m never not writing. So a record coming out gives me a little bit of a spark to know I gotta start actually demoing stuff. For Worry, I think half that record was written before We Cool came out. With this record, some songs are from before Worry, just parts I’ve been trying to figure out how it all makes sense in my head. I had a bunch of stuff, and it was noisy in the city and everything was noisy on the Internet, so I took all that shit off my phone and went up to the mountains.

Does that confidence manifest itself in veering away from straight-up punk? Because this might be your hookiest album yet, and very little of it sounds like typical punk to me. For instance, I love “9/10,” which has a soft-rock vibe to it, almost like a Billy Joel or Steely Dan song. I mean that as a compliment by the way.

I grew up listening to a lot of, like, fucking light FM radio to go to sleep when I was a kid. I mean, that’s in my core somewhere.

Ever since the last Bomb The Music Industry! record, I started re-appraoching how I want to write things, and really embracing dynamics. Like, make the parts that feel punishing feel really punishing, and make the parts that feel really peaceful and quiet feel really peaceful and quiet. Get really loud, and get really soft. Get really angry or get really sweet. But work with the full range instead of staying in the middle ground. I’m trying to make every song “Born To Run,” but I know that every song isn’t “Born To Run.”

“USA” is a great example of that, where it rages at the start, has that long ambient passage in the middle, and then rages again at the end.

I was happy people liked that one because it’s a weird one to put first.

Did you feel like you were throwing down the gauntlet by putting it first?

I don’t know if “throwing down the gauntlet” is the right term. When we recorded it and it was turning out good, I was like, ‘Oh, fuck yeah, sick.’ But it was kind of like the [second-side song suite] of Worry, where it’s just like, ‘All right man, I feel like this is the right call. I don’t hear a lot of people doing this so it might be a mistake, but it’s how I want to make the record, so let’s go.’

“USA” is also typical of your writing style, where the lyrics are despairing and the music transforms that negativity into something positive and thrilling. What appeals to you about that disparity?

I don’t know. People have asked me about that for a little while. I think it might be two different parts of my brain that work on music versus lyrics. Music is usually something that pops into my head and I can chase it and it’s fun, like, ‘Oh shit, how can I make this sicker?’ With lyrics, I put my fucking head down on the bed and I just write for a while. When I’m done I look at it like, ‘Okay, where here am I not saying the fucking brutal truth?’ So those are just going to be different feelings.

The ska-punk bands I liked growing up did that. It was upbeat music, but like if you listened to Specials lyrics, if you listen to Operation Ivy’s lyrics, if you listen to Real Big Fish lyrics, they’re dark and they’re sad. As a depressed kid who wanted to feel better, both of those things always really resonated with me, and I think that must’ve influenced the way that I do stuff now. It’s kind of hard to say why you write the way you write. I think once you start thinking about why you write the way you write, then you start trying to write the way that you write.

One thing I’ve noticed when we’ve talked is that you instinctively undercut yourself, like you’re afraid of sounding pompous, even though you do feel more confident about what you’re doing.

I feel like I’m lucky to be making music. I feel like in the last year specifically, I’ve become more confident about it. But I [also] know that confident people bug the shit out of me, like overly confident people. ‘Oh yeah, you think you’re so fucking cool? You think you’re doing a good job? Great.’ So I think I’m aware of that. I’m in new shoes I didn’t expect to be in here

Post- is out now via Polyvinyl. Get it here.

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