Just two weeks ago, The Daily was lucky enough to have a chance to speak with singer/songwriter Jeff Rosenstock about his newest record, POST-, and his upcoming show on Apr. 25, accompanied by Martha and Bad Moves, at the Loving Touch in Ferndale. Now in his mid-30s, a punk artist for whom it truly wasn’t a phase, the Long Island native found his musical roots in ska over two decades ago. An incredibly prolific artist, he has made and released music as part of his band Bomb the Music Industry!, along with several other projects, including recently composing the music for “Craig of the Creek,” a new show on Cartoon Network.
The Michigan Daily: What does the title of POST- mean to you? Then, the cover image looks like someone vacuuming maybe like an entryway. Where did that image come from and why did you decide on that?
Rosenstock: It’s hard to get into — I’ve been asked this a bunch of times and I feel like I’ve given a different answer every time, so I need to admit that the title, I think that what really appealed to me about it was that it was really … I wanted to have something that felt open and vague, and that felt that way to me. I had that written in a notebook and I felt like it could mean a handful of different things, which I think are pretty obvious on the record or just like, just livin’ in these times, man. But I liked that it was really open-ended, so I feel like trying to give an answer to it makes it not really be all the things, you know?
With the cover image, specifically, and the title, and the color scheme, and all that, I was hoping to hit that vibe of just waking up after being knocked out. Like I tried to make the color kind of like that color that the morning is when the morning first starts and maybe you can’t sleep. That grayish, bluish just kind of feeling.
And Hiro Tanaka is a photographer from Japan. He’s also a really good buddy, really, really cool dude, really fun dude to hang out with, and he travels with us on tour and he took a lot of really awesome pictures from the tour we did last summer, and that is one of a guy vacuuming up at like one o’clock in the morning, two o’clock in the morning at a casino in Reno, Nevada. And I just kind of, I just thought it just suited it. I just kept throwing a bunch of stuff in there and then it was like, “Oh wait, shit, yeah. This is it. Thanks, Hiro.”
TMD: You strike me as someone who might be frustrated with people in music taking themselves too seriously. Would you agree with that?
Rosenstock: Oh yeah, totally. Why wouldn’t you wanna try and be funny? I don’t understand why a lot of people’s instinct is to ignore their senses of humor when it comes to anything. I feel like, personally, when people have a sense of humor about shit, it makes their art more relatable to me. I’ve been stoked about the younger bands that we’ve been playing with, ‘cause they all seem to have a little bit of a sense of humor about themselves, and not afraid to show it, and I think that that is nice, for me as a fan, you know?
TMD: For sure. One of the things that surprised me about POST- before I had even listened was that it’s just 10 songs, with “USA” clocking in at seven and a half minutes and “Let Them Win” at 11. That’s compared to WORRY. with 17 songs, where the back half is all these one- to two-minute jams that just flow into each other. What was the change in mindset that accompanied that change in structure?
Rosenstock: A few things. I’ve been listening to more ambient music, which I didn’t have too much of a grasp on when I was writing WORRY., but I’ve been trying to listen to things just to feel calmer, and I wanted to try and see if there was any space for being calm in a record of mine, because usually there’s not. It seemed like a kind of fun challenge to take on, and it felt like a natural time to give it a shot. It didn’t feel like I was forcing anything. I was really stoked how the end of “Let Them Win” turned out. That was at the end of a very very stressful couple of months. I recorded that shit just for the demo of the song, just to hear, “Will it sound good?” It kind of feels like a very emotional thing for me. I don’t know, whatever, who cares. But because I felt like I had a little bit of a better grasp on how I would want something with space to sound, and I think that one of the defining factors of our current shit as a human race is that there is no time to process anything. And that the fuckin’ record starts off pretty harshly, I thought that adding some time for reflection would be good.
I listened to that record On the Beach by Neil Young a ton. It’s one of my favorite records. I listened to the record Perfect From Now On by Built To Spill a ton, and both of those records are records that have a lot of space to them, where you can kind of get lost, jump in and out and go at your own pace and eventually it becomes your favorite thing. I don’t think I’ve usually made too much stuff that was like that, so I just wanted to give it a shot this time around. And it seems really smart now because people like it, but when I was done with it I was just like, “This fuckin’ song just turns into a ‘Stranger Things’ space-jam for four minutes and it’s the first song on the record. Uh, why would anyone want to listen to this?”
TMD: I thought it was kind of funny — well, not funny, but WORRY. came out and then we had the election. Were you like, “Crap, now I have to make another album?” What was your feeling around that time?
Rosenstock: Yeah, I wasn’t like, “I gotta make an album, save the world!” you know? We were on tour, playing in Iowa as the dagger was being thrown, basically. We went on and it was kind of even, and then while we were playing I was like, “Man, everyone here seems to not like our band right now.” I looked over at the merch and Christine and Morgan and Cody who were doing merch for us — Katie Ellen and Hard Girls, respectively — were just shaking their heads back and forth. It was like, “What did we do wrong? Are we bad tonight? Are we worse than usual?” And then when we got off and I’d seen like, “Oh shit, it’s done,” some kid came up to me when I was talking to them in disbelief and was like, “Hey man, it fuckin’ happened.” Just basically like, “You can’t think that this didn’t just happen. This just happened.” I was like, “Whoa, stranger, that’s some heavy shit.”
I think being on tour for that record as that was happening affected me in a way I can’t really articulate. It gave me a lot of hope, to be honest with you. Because as these things were going bad around us, Anika and Cody — from Katie Ellen — had come up with the idea to, well, we were playing a college show the next day, and we wanted to take donations at the door for Planned Parenthood, like right away. And they were like, “You can’t do that, because it’s a state building.” So instead, Katie Ellen — the band — came up with the idea of having a make-your-own-protest-pin station, so you could write, like, “Fuck Trump,” on a button. It was a day afterwards! We were all excited about doing it still at that point. Just being around that and being a part of it just kind of — I was feeling a lot of things all at the same time.
It wasn’t like, “Oh fuck, I gotta go write a record,” but I think that being done with all that, everything just felt different, and I really needed to decompress, and I feel like those are the moments where I’m at my best when it comes to writing. My friends Pete and Kara just happened to have a trailer up in the middle of nowhere, and I had a few weeks off, so I could just go up there for a week and demo and write and work on stuff, which is something I usually don’t have a chance to do. I went up basically straight from the Inauguration protest and the Women’s March. I maybe took a day to get all my shit together, then bought a synthesizer and went up to the mountains. I think that just feeling like I needed to decompress and try and take stock of everything was really important. I think that’s how those ambient passages ended up on the record, because that’s part of it. That’s part of being able to understand things, is giving yourself the time to understand things and be empathetic.
TMD: Do you think that, as an artist, there is an inherent responsibility to acknowledge the world, or the political state of affairs?
Rosenstock: I think, yeah, you have a responsibility, but you also have a responsibility to people to be truthful and honest about how you’re feeling at the time, and sometimes you don’t wanna fucking talk about it. You know what I mean? Especially right now, people at our shows know everything I’m gonna say at this point. I feel like, for the most part, we’re all on the same page. But at the same time, if there are days when I’m thinking about it, I feel like I should talk about it. It is weird when you’re in situations like that, because I’ve always thought that, if we’re in a situation like that, I am going to try and say some important world-changing shit. I feel like when I started to try and do that that day, I was like talking shit on a television show that’s on HBO that’s, like, a good television show that a lot of people worked really hard on, and I was like, “What the fuck? I can’t fuckin’ articulate this stuff,” you know? And I think there’s a danger to being inarticulate when you’re in that situation, because then you have the microphone and you can talk to all these people and you’re a fucking idiot. Or, you can plan what you’re going to say, and then you’re not being truthful to the moment. I think there’s a lot there, but I think when people are like, “Oh, I don’t get into politics,” it’s like, “Yeah, dude, that’s a political stance, to not get into politics. Sorry. You’re wrapped up in it.”
TMD: About a month ago, we interviewed Fred Thomas, who’s also on Polyvinyl now, and he’s been making music since 1992 or so. We talked about the idea of being a “lifer,” and the potential frustrations that can come with it. Have you ever found yourself frustrated with where you’re at?
Rosenstock: Well, yes and no. It’s gonna sound like bullshit, but I’ve never been frustrated with the level that we’re at when we were playing basement shows and DIY spaces, because that’s where I feel comfortable. Those are the places I like to go to see shows, that’s where I like to go to play shows. Not to say I don’t like a nice big venue where I can stand at the back and drink a beer, or a seated venue where I can sit my fuckin’ mid-30s ass down, and watch like Jeff Mangum or something, you know? That shit’s cool, obviously. But I feel like my heart is in the smaller places, because that’s just what it was for me since I was young. I would never get frustrated with that stuff. Like, “When is this gonna work? When is this gonna catch?” I’ve never assumed it would catch. I just always wanted to try and make a good record. I stopped my old band that I was in because it just seemed like it was time, it seemed like it might’ve hit a wall. The guy who played trombone and keyboards in the band, and was kinda the person I fed off of the most, live, he was leaving and I was like this seems like a good place to do it instead of just dragging it out.
So I stopped doing that and I didn’t stop making music. And the first record I did after that, I Look Like Shit, and to an extent the second record, We Cool?, was, like, I was just writing. It was like, “Okay, I’m still writing, so I guess this is a thing I’m not gonna stop doing. Alright.” You know what I mean? There’re never really expectations for me. Obviously I’ll be upset at the moment when we start being less popular, which is inevitable — that’s how everything works. But I think that my main goal is to always try to make just a record of fuckin’ bangers that I would like to listen to.
TMD: You have said that when We Cool? was released, you had a good portion of WORRY. written, and when WORRY. was released, you had a good portion of POST- already written. Now, I don’t want to sound impatient, but does that mean that you already have half of the next record done?
Rosenstock: Kind of, I feel like I kind of always do, but the half that it is is a little more slippery than — well, when I say that it means that I have chunks and parts of songs that need to grow into full songs, into things, into creatures. That’s just kind of how I am with stuff. But yeah, I have a bunch of stuff written and I know the vibe that I’d like to get at for it, but I don’t know if that’s the way the songs are taking me yet, which is just about where I usually am. I need another, like, week in the woods to just kinda hammer this shit out and see what it sounds like and just kind of wrap my head around things.
I’m always writing in the sense that, I read an interview with Neil Young where he talked about how he doesn’t ever set aside songwriting time; he doesn’t schedule time to work; he doesn’t pick up a guitar, ever, and think “Okay, I’m gonna work on a song;” but if he has an idea, he’ll chase it. And he’ll chase it until it’s done. I’ve read a lot of things about songwriting because I like writing songs and I’m kind of obsessed, and that was the only thing I ever read that really rang true to me. Because of that, I’m just kind of like, write as I’m writing, and then once the record makes sense as a bunch of songs, the record will make sense as a bunch of songs. Like, we put out songs like “NEVERGONNAGETITBACKAGAIN!!!” and “Dramamine,” those both could’ve been on this record, but it just didn’t make sense.
I was listening to demos and sequences and stuff like that, just trying to figure out how it feels, while I was traveling around on tour, while I was in a van, while I was on the train, while I was on the plane, while I’m walking around. Just trying to figure out how to get it to flow, you know? I feel like that’s where it really all comes together, so it’s hard to say that it’s written, because I feel like it’s still just those nascent ideas right now. But I have a bunch of good verses — I have a bunch of, like, good verses and OK choruses, or okay verses and good choruses that I need to fuckin’ sit down with and figure out what I can do beyond the initial 45 seconds of working on it.