For nearly 20 years, Jeff Rosenstock has been making music his way on the outskirts of the record industry. Starting as a teenager in the late-’90s punk-ska outfit Arrogant Sons of Bitches, Rosenstock re-invented himself in the mid-’00s as a DIY outsider with Bomb the Music Industry!, which started out as a lo-fi solo project and slowly morphed into a loose-limbed collective of musicians intent on distributing music via free CD-Rs and resisting any financial support from corporations.
Over time, as Rosenstock has built a following via constant touring, he’s inched ever closer to the mainstream. In 2015, he released his second solo record, We Cool?, on SideOneDummy Records, the L.A.-based indie punk label known for putting out albums by the Gaslight Anthem, Flogging Molly, and Title Fight. The association continues with the new Worry, a sneakily ambitious 17-song opus that successfully melds Rosenstock’s wide palate of influences, which include the Clash, Neutral Milk Hotel, the Beach Boys, and, yes, ska groups like Less Than Jake.
Lyrically, Rosenstock is an ebullient narrator, addressing both the personal and political with equal parts humor and anger. While Rosenstock can be acerbic when addressing corporatized music festivals (“Festival Song”) and police brutality (“The Fuzz”), he’s equally self-lacerating when the subject turns to the rigors of life as an aging punk.
Uproxx recently caught up with Rosenstock via phone to talk about Worry, which comes out Oct. 14.
You turned 34 last month. Was that a big deal?
I don’t know. It kind of all just feels like 30 at this point. I know turning 30 was pretty nice because I felt like during my 20s there was just this vibe of, ‘Oh fuck, what the fuck am I going to do? When am I going to start treating life seriously?’ I figure a lot of musicians go through that because you do have such a strange lifestyle that people just don’t understand.
Then, when I turned 30, I’m like, ‘Cool, I’m already just doing the thing I’m going to do. I don’t need to worry about this and stress out so much about this anymore.'”
Worry‘s lead-off track, “We Begged 2 Explode,” appears to address a person judging an unconventional, rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. You have that line, “Stop sneering at our joy like it’s a careless mistake.”
You can just see people drifting into different lifestyles and starting to actually, you know, get their shit together. I think with that song, I’m just kind of swirling around: ‘How is life going to be okay for the next couple of years?’
It’s kind of hard to explain it. Especially that song, because that song is very specifically about something. It is how I feel, which is conflicted a lot of the time about whether or not I’m doing the right thing. Whether I’m throwing my life away doing this.
In “Festival Song,” you talk about how music festivals have devolved into “careful entertainment for an easy demographic,” and the ways in which corporate encroachment has diluted the live music experience. At this point, the concept of “selling out” is basically viewed as passé. Criticism of corporate sponsorship is either muted or non-existent in mainstream culture. So, I appreciated your willingness to go against the grain. Why did you write that song?
I’m not trying to call anybody a sellout. Everybody has to do their own thing, and what they feel is right for them. I just feel like people, at this point, don’t think that you can do it another way anymore. It’s just so accepted. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, we got to do this thing this way. There’s going to be corporate sponsors on this thing.’
The more you accept that, the more corporations will just continue to seep in more and more, and then, it feels even less like you could get away without it. All the time, people say, ‘There is never going to be Fugazi.’ It’s like, ‘Fuck you! Fuck that!’ Why not? Why can’t that happen? It could happen now more than it could ever happen before because you can just record stuff on your own and put it out for free.
It’s this mentality that that’s what you need and you can’t really get away from it so you might as well just suck it up and deal with it. I’m just like, ‘Fuck that, you don’t have to deal with it.’ Do something on your own and do something that you like. If you don’t want to be involved in that, don’t be involved in that.
You’ve been giving away your records for years, even before artists such as Chance The Rapper started doing it on a larger scale. But you are also currently signed to SideOneDummy, so you haven’t totally ducked capitalism. How do you reconcile being on a label with your insistence on making music free?
When I started doing solo records again, it really was never a thought that [signing to a label] was going to be a thing. Then SideOneDummy just happened to hit us up when we finished our record. I asked some friends. I asked Mike Park, who does Asian Man Records, I asked my wife, I talked to my parents, I talked to friends about it.
Everybody was like, ‘You should go for it. You should give it a shot. It wouldn’t hurt to give it a shot.’ That’s true. I don’t want to close myself off to experiences. I just reconciled it by making sure that the music was still going to be free. Making sure that nobody has creative control but me and no one’s telling me what to do. Both of those things are still the case.
Then, making this record, knowing it was going to be on SideOneDummy, I just wanted to make a punk-as-fuck record. This might not happen again where it will have a wide reach or anything like that, so it was just like, all right, I just want to say some radical shit because I don’t feel like people are doing that anymore.
Musically, Worry is eclectic — there are fast punk songs, pretty pop songs, even some ska. In the second half, there are a bunch of short songs that build into a kind of suite. Where did that idea come from?
I kept thinking about The Clash a lot — with London Calling, they were fearless. They just made whatever they wanted to make. London Calling is one of the best records ever, you know?
I was listening to a lot of [Neutral Milk Hotel’s] On Avery Island and I was listening to Smile by The Beach Boys a lot. The whole suite at the end, I basically just had a lot of songs for this record that sounded like they were too long or they weren’t long enough and I was trying to make them longer when they didn’t need to be longer. Then a friend suggested to me, ‘Hey, why don’t you try just smashing them all together.’
It reminded me of Abbey Road.
Yeah. He said, ‘You should Abbey Road it.’ And I was like — and this is embarrassing — but I didn’t listen to The Beatles growing up. So I was like, ‘Okay I’m going to do what I think that is.’
Like a lot of punk musicians, you’ve spent time in ska bands. A lot of musicians I speak with seem somewhat sheepish about their ska past, but you continue to wave the ska flag. Why do you think ska has a negative stigma?
It’s weird, because people have been asking me that a lot. I don’t know why it has a negative connotation. To me, it’s just cool-kid, indie-rock bullshit, trying to pick on the nerds, just like in high school, and it just escalated into adulthood, or just music in general. Yeah, in the ’90s there were too many ska punk bands and a lot of them were bad. But it’s kind of strange to me that nothing that’s like ska in any way is ever going to get looked at by mainstream, indie-music media.
I don’t know what their deal is. I think it’s weird. I think it’s incredibly strange to discount an entire genre of music.
My theory is that ska is upbeat and it’s easy for people — especially self-consciously “cool” people — to be dismissive of music that sounds upbeat.
I’m not interested in the bullshit. I just want to like stuff that I’ve enjoyed, you know? It’s kind of like the goth kids from South Park saying everything’s lame and being like, it’s not dark and brooding enough. I feel like Less Than Jake, their lyrics were kind of dark and fucked up sometimes. It’s just hilarious to me the way that it’s remembered is as this goofy, ‘Hey I love everybody’ kind of thing.