An Interview of Jeff Rosenstock at Club Congress
12 November 2015
Carolyn: Can you state your name, please?
Jeff: Yes, I’m Jeff Rosenstock.
Carolyn: Ok, Jeff. And I’m Carolyn O’Hara with Uncommon Music. What do you love most about music?
Jeff: It’s kind of hard to put into words. I don’t know, it’s just like – me and my friend Jules from this band, the Bennies, were talking about it and just kinda like when you listen to good music it kind of hits some kind of emotional frequency inside you, I think. It’s something that is kind of hard to explain. It doesn’t make any sense, but it just like – music for me at least, when I listen to good music, it just does something that nothing else I can think of really does. It’s great – I listen to music all the time. I love it. It’s fun. It’s got everything – it’s fun and it’s sad, it’s loud, it’s quiet, it’s good for everything.
Carolyn: So you play guitar, harmonica and keyboards… do you play anything else?
Jeff: I don’t play harmonica like at all [laughing].
Carolyn: [laughing] You just fake it?!
Jeff: [makes audible impression of his harmonica skills] Like if you just get a harmonica that’s in the right key of the song, it’ll sound like you know how to play a harmonica. I play a bunch of stuff. I can play basically anything but drums. I play sax too. I’m okay at keyboards, I’m decent at guitar, I’m decent at bass. I play those things.
Carolyn: Which did you learn first?
Jeff: I learned – I did like guitar when I was really young, but not for too long and then, I started playing the bass, because I thought Les Claypool and Flea were really cool when I was growing up [laughing]. So I was like, “Yeah, I’ll play the bass. I’ll just play slap bass all the time.” Slowly, I got away from that. I think when I started writing songs and stuff, I kind of like grabbed the guitar that I had when I was younger. I actually started writing songs on that.
Carolyn: Did you take lessons or teach yourself?
Jeff: I took lessons for a little bit on everything. I think I took – I really kind of gravitated towards learning about the music composition side of it more than how to actually play, if that makes sense [laughs]. So I would take guitar lessons or bass lessons or piano lessons until like I knew what the scales were and then like at some point, I’d ask like, “Hey, I like this Green Day song, how do I play it?” My guitar teacher would be like, “Oh, well, it’s this kind of thing.” And I feel like, I don’t know, I was asking to play weird songs, it was like, “I don’t get it.” So I was like “Okay, I’m just going to figure it out on my own”, and then I’d stop taking guitar lessons, because I didn’t want to like… I don’t know… I didn’t care beyond just knowing how it all worked, you know? Like once I got the general thing, I was like, “Okay, I’m good, see you.”
Carolyn: Do you name your instruments?
Jeff: No, I know people who do. That’s fine. I think it’s strange. I don’t know. I don’t expect – like the guitar I’ve had… knock on wood… [knocks] I’ve had for like twelve years, maybe more, and it’s in pretty bad shape, but it’s still survived.* That’s the only guitar I’ve ever had that survives. Every other guitar I’ve had has broken within like six months just because I play and I kind of smash stuff around and do dumb stuff with it, you know?
Carolyn: [laughing] Like tossing it around the crowd? (the guitar in question, which is covered in duct tape, went crowdsurfing earlier that evening)
Jeff: Yeah, so I never named them, because it was like, whatever. And then I was just like, “Oh, well it’d be silly to name it now.”
Carolyn: So you’re considered a major proponent of DIY ideology – what does this mean to you and why is it important?
Jeff: I don’t know. I never said – Being considered a major anything of anything is weird. It’s strange to me. I don’t know. I don’t get that. I always feel a little weird about that, because I’m just a guy. This is just what I’m doing, you know? Like the other day, I went to In-N-Out Burger – I think that everything that everybody’s doing is pretty interesting. Like everybody’s on their own trip and doing their own thing. Like I harassed somebody at In-N-Out Burger for like twenty minutes like “When’s it coming to New York? What about this?” To be the major anything of anything is a strange thing to me, but like DIY, it’s just like, I don’t know, I always just did stuff myself. I feel like most of the time it was just because nobody else gave a shit. I had enough experience with bands waiting for people to help out with things and like, bands that I would be either like playing bass in or doing little bits in and see them climb up that thing more than I had ever and it always seemed like they got burned. So I was like, “I don’t want anything to do with this and nobody gives a shit anyway so like whatever, let’s just do it on our own.” That’s kind of how Bomb [the Music Industry!] ended up doing it. Then we met a bunch of great people that had the same kind of “fuck you” mentality to all of it and now we have a bunch of good friends. Yeah, so that’s kind of what that part is.
Carolyn: So this year alone, you’ve been a part of five albums and three tours, is that correct?
Jeff: Um… I don’t know – to name the records that came out this year, it’s Dan’s**, mine, Laura’s***, Antarctigo [Vespucci], I don’t think that Bruce Lee Band record came out this year. I don’t know – yeah, a bunch of stuff. I’m lucky that I get to be a part of any stuff. It’s what I want to do, you know?
Carolyn: Do you ever get tired though? From just like going-going-going?
Jeff: I switch it up enough. I’m lucky that right now it’s my job so I don’t give a shit. Like I’ve been tired at jobs where I haven’t given a shit about what I was doing at all, so the fact that I even get to use like recording, helping other people with their records and also my own records and also like graphic design, that’s all stuff I love doing and I get to just like keep doing band stuff, so you know if I get tired it’s like “Whatever, you gotta power through it.” Because this is awesome. I don’t know how long this is going to last. I don’t want to blow it by not trying hard enough, and I don’t want to waste it by being like, “Ohhh, I’m exhausted, I’ve been driving for six hours today.” Like whatever, you know. I’m sure in like five years, I’ll have plenty of time to like drive to the same place every day and just sit at a desk every day and do nothing, you know what I mean? So I try not to take this for granted. I think that’s how I remain from getting completely burnt out.
Carolyn: So graphic design… is that something you went to school for?
Jeff: No, I went to school for recording and then I ended up building my own major that was like part writing and part recording and a little bit of graphic design, but I just learned all that stuff from having bands and it’s like “alright, well, we want to put out a demo tape, someone’s gotta make the layout for the demo tape; we gotta have a website, someone’s gotta make the website.” So I just kind of learned it from that.
Carolyn: Which school did you go to?
Jeff: I went to NYU.
Carolyn: Oh, okay. Over in the Village, right?
Jeff: Yeah, fancy stuff. It was really strange living in Manhattan for four years, but I loved it. I was lucky to do that.
Carolyn: So you’re from Brooklyn, right?
Jeff: Well, um… yeah, I’ve lived in Brooklyn for like a while now. I’ve lived in New York City since the year 2000 so it probably counts. I was born in Long Island, I’m from Long Island originally. So I’ve always been kind of close to that area, but in my heart, I’m a Long Islander, which sucks ‘cause there’s a lot of bad people there [laughing].
Carolyn: [laughing] What do you mean?
Jeff: Oh, you know, if you watch the Jersey Shore, you see those kinds of people happen, but there’s also a lot of good people too.
Carolyn: So what’s your favorite place to play?
Jeff: It’s always nice to play at home. I really like Chicago, San Francisco, but, on this tour, we played Houston, and Houston and Birmingham were fucking awesome and really fun. So I don’t know, I like playing everywhere. Like I’m not going to lie, it’s nice when people know that we’re a band or care that we’re doing anything, but when people aren’t, and especially on a tour like this, it’s like alright, cool, we get to just do our thing and hopefully people like it [laughs] and if they don’t, they don’t, if they do, they do, but I think both of those things are really fun. Probably playing at home for favorite place to play.
Carolyn: Let’s see here… so do you know what percent of people get your album like your real album versus downloading it on…
Jeff: The free Quote Unquote one?
Carolyn: Yeah, Quote Unquote.
Jeff: No, I don’t look at the numbers at Quote Unquote all that much [laughs]. I know that Quote Unquote donations were more than Bandcamp donations. I just know that we’re doing fine so I don’t worry about it. Like I want people to hear the record if they want to hear the record so that’s always why I put it up and I feel like I never check the numbers, because I don’t want to even think about whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I just want to do that, you know?
Carolyn: That’s awesome. So what did SideOneDummy say when you’re like “I want to put my albums up there for donation or free”?
Jeff: Well, I mean, first, they weren’t into it. Then, I was like, “This has to happen. We’ve got to do this. I feel really strongly about it.” And then they’re just like, “Okay.” At first they were like, “Are you sure?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’m sure.” And they were just like, “Okay, cool.” So they were awesome about it, they were really nice about it they were great about it. I don’t think they wanted us on that label, because we’re people that we’re not, you know? Like Bomb the Music Industry! was a band for long enough that when you start dealing with bands that me and John are in, you kind of know what you’re getting into. You know that there’s going to be something like that and I think that’s part of the reason they actually liked us and wanted to work with us, you know? So they were totally down for it.
Carolyn: What’s your earliest memory of music?
Jeff: I think my earliest one is – my parents had MTV. We had MTV growing up, and like I walked downstairs and turned on the TV and MTV was on TV and the song “Rock On” by Michael Damian was on, like, “Hey kids, rock and roll! Rock on!” I don’t even know if I’d know that song if I didn’t have this memory. It was probably the number one single for like half a day and then disappeared, but I remember seeing that, watching it and dancing to it and my parents being like, “Oh, this isn’t something that will ruin our son’s life. This is nice.” Yeah, that’s what I remember.
Carolyn: What band or musician have you obsessed over the most, at any time in your life?
Jeff: Brian Wilson’s a big one. The Weakerthans, Elvis Costello, Bikini Kill, Minor Threat, The Jam, The Clash, of course, Fugazi, Sleater Kinney, Cyndi Lauper, Patsy Cline. Those people are just some that immediately come to mind. Operation Ivy.
Carolyn: Those are good choices. Have you seen Love & Mercy?
Carolyn: Did you like it?
Jeff: At first I was pretty precious about the story, but I saw it a second time and was like “this is awesome.” John Cusack is just kind of being John Cusack. I saw it in theaters the first time – it was just great to hear that music really loud, like on awesome speakers. All the Pet Sounds stuff and that shit’s really good. There’s a documentary about the Wrecking Crew, the band that recorded all that 60’s/70’s shit. Pet Sounds and – God, they were on just like every record in the 60’s and 70’s. The documentary on that was also really cool. There was a bunch of Pet Sounds stuff in there.
Carolyn: What do you appreciate most about each member of your band?
Jeff: John – I appreciate John’s loyalty. I’ve known him forever and he is the most trustworthy person I’ve ever met. With Mike, it’s hard to decide, because he’s really, really funny. He’s like the funniest guy I know, but he’s also so insanely creative. I think he’s a visionary at the guitar. He’s in a band called Hard Girls and that’s like his main thing. I’m lucky to have him when he plays with us. I think Kevin’s kind of – he’s got a really positive attitude. He’s always down for whatever. He was in a fucking rap-rock band before this and I met him recording Bruce Lee Band stuff with Mike Park. Just meeting him, I was like, “How are you not in our world of punk bands? You’d have such a good time.” Yeah, he’s the best. They’re all the best. I like them a lot.
Carolyn: So what’s the story behind the video for “Nausea”? What’s the deal with the tacos?
Jeff: I have no idea. [Carolyn laughs] I thought of it – I just thought it’d be funny. I thought it would be funny to tear somebody to shreds and eat the tacos. I thought it’d be kind of fucked up and weird and funny. That’s all.
Carolyn: [laughing] You moved by being fucked up and weird a lot?
Jeff: Yeah, I think my general vibe’s like kind of funny, but mostly dark and fucked up so I think that kind of lines up with this. I don’t know. I feel like every music video – that’s the first music video idea I’ve ever had that actually became a real thing. I feel like for some reason I have some kind of obsession with ultra-violent music videos, but like juxtaposed against fun stuff, like people violently vomiting, but it’s like confetti! Or somebody’s getting brutally ripped apart, but it’s like tacos! We were having a video for Bomb for “Campaign for a Better Next Weekend”, the first song off “Vacation”. It’s like a slow, broody indie rock video and you’re like following somebody, like me like getting ready for the day, getting on a bike and like immediately, I get hit by a car. My body like splatters somewhere and then everybody rips me apart and then, there’s a ticker tape parade for everybody else. They also get a trophy. So I don’t know – these are things that I think make up good videos.
Carolyn: Speaking of being dark and weird – well, not weird, but just dark [Jeff laughs] and maybe depressing, your lyrics can be pretty self-deprecating at times. Would you say that that’s an accurate depiction of the way you see yourself?
Jeff: I have no idea. I’ve never thought about my lyrics as much as since this last record came out and people have been asking me about it a lot. I don’t know. I just kind of try and write honestly and I guess I just feel bad about myself a lot if I’m being honest [laughs]. But it’s whatever, everybody kind of feels bad about themselves sometimes. I think I write about it when I do.
Carolyn: I think you’re more honest than a lot of people are about it.
Carolyn: I mean, people are afraid to show everything that they’re feeling, it seems like. But you just throw it all out there without worrying about what people think, and I think that’s rad.
Jeff: Thanks. Thanks, that’s nice. I think I’ve always liked bands that have done that too so you know, I don’t know. It’s weird. I don’t know. I never knew I was opening up as much as I am until recently. It’s like, “Oh, shit, I”m saying real shit apparently. Alright, cool. Good, I’ll try to keep doing that [laughing].
Carolyn: Do you have a favorite film?
Jeff: Yeah – Boogie Nights. I like it. It’s a very funny and very dark movie. And very violent movie so I guess it all makes sense [laughing].
Carolyn: Alright, I haven’t seen that one.
Jeff: Oh, it’s awesome! It’s great. I feel like it – the reputation of that film is just like “it’s the movie where Mark Wahlberg has like a thirteen inch dick and shows it at the end” or whatever, but the rest of it – it’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s first real movie. He did like There Will Be Blood. He did… what the fuck did he just do? He just did Inherent Vice. He’s my favorite filmmaker guy, and that was the movie that just kind of got me the first time.
Carolyn: Alright, what would you be doing if you weren’t making music right now?
Jeff: I think I’d be doing graphic design, but I tried doing that instead of doing music and I didn’t like it, so there’s that. I don’t know. I’d be doing graphic design and hopefully, not be bummed out about it. Is that a weird thing? Like “oh yeah, I’d be doing this for sure”? [laughing]
Carolyn: Who’s your favorite band to tour with? If you can pick one, you don’t have to if you don’t want to.
Jeff: It’s hard, there’s a lot… that’s hard. Andrew Jackson Jihad and the Sidekicks and Laura Stevenson and the Smith Street Band are all like our best friends. Fucking Chumped. We only really – I don’t know, there’s a bunch of bands. We tour together, but when we tour together it feels like we’re home, you know what I mean? Like I’m not home in my city a lot, and I don’t see a lot of my friends in my city all that much, but when I see those people it kind of feels like, “Ok, this makes sense. We’re on tour together, this makes sense.”
Carolyn: Alright. Well, thank you so much for your time.
Jeff: Thanks so much for caring that anything I’m doing is happening.
Carolyn: No, it’s awesome.
*This part is pretty sad to read now. Yesterday, before this interview was published, Jeff’s van was broken into and all of the band’s instruments and gear, including this guitar, were stolen.
This a slightly abridged version of the full transcript. If you want to see the whole thing, send an e-mail to email@example.com, and I’ll be happy to share.