Jeff Rosenstock Pulls Hope From His Washing Machine of Chaos
The punk titan and ska lifer talks Neil Young, riding the vibe of a seven-minute jam, the scarcity of DIY spaces post-pandemic and his new album, HELLMODEPhotos by Matt Price Music Features Jeff Rosenstock
“It feels like the world is fucking constantly under renovation,” Jeff Rosenstock tells me on a blistering, sweaty July afternoon after he hears a few maintenance men hammering away in the apartment above mine. “I can’t think of a period of time that I’ve lived in when there has not been power tools going off somewhere.” It’s an apt declaration to make because, in many ways, the body of work Rosenstock has accumulated since 2015 has become this living, breathing work-in-progress capsule—as he is constantly unspooling evergreen national concerns, like late-capitalism and gun control, while also trying to make sense of romantic and platonic love during a time of social and personal failure and trying to figure out how to funnel his wide-ranging frustration into a crystalline, sort-of-hopeful vessel.
There are countless artists out there who likely have crafted much more streamlined, intellectualized syllabi on organizing and advocacy that they can channel into their songs—but sometimes all you really need is an energetic Californian yelling “Even if it feels weird to be yourself, speak! Even if it’s hard to, even if it hurts you, even if your brain begins to melt” at the void during the hottest summer on record. Jeff Rosenstock is not out here trying to turn his catalog into the Harvard of punk-focused reactionary work. POST- and NO DREAM aren’t manifestos that claim to have this whole living thing figured out. No, Rosenstock just wants to consider a world where we’re no longer numb to the violence and fear that now plagues our dreams of tomorrow—and, on his latest effort HELLMODE, that want for human grace reveals itself in some of the most graceful and delicate gestures of his career.
When Rosenstock isn’t making kickass records, he’s in his home studio (or, as he calls it, his “tune tomb” and “washing machine of chaos”) churning out scores for Cartoon Network’s animated hit show Craig of the Creek or kicking it with his handsome internet-famous friend Chris Farren or playing saxophone on top of stage amps or brandishing a flag that combines gay pride colors, satanism and pot leafs all in one place. Few artists have ever dared to make caring immensely look so not-giving-a-fuck-ish. One glimpse at Rosenstock’s energy and industry dissent, love of ska music and riotous, unflinching energy and you might think he’s just another loud punk pulling pennies from ear-busting anthems. But he’s long railed against the “pricks who benefit from disaster,” much longer than many of us have even been consciously consuming music or forming legitimate opinions about the inequity that engulfs our daily to-do lists. For that alone, Jeff Rosenstock is a canonized practitioner of good faith and campy, accessible entertaining anyone can find joy and hope and familiarity lovingly inside of. The fact that he’s made some of the most important rock statements of the last 20 years (here’s looking at you, Worry) is, perhaps, why his stamp on this world will outlive us all.
Ever since he dropped We Cool? and crashed the SideOneDummy website on release day eight years ago, Rosenstock has been fervently putting out stone cold bangers on a whim. It’s practically become his calling card, a factoid about his artistry that often pervades conversations around his musical existence. But, now that he’s entering his third release (or fourth, depending on how you categorize 2021’s SKA DREAM) with Polyvinyl, he—for the first time—isn’t rebelling against traditional label procedures when it comes to an album rollout. Rosenstock not only announced HELLMODE in advance; he’s been releasing teaser singles to drum up a little hype, too! (Though, letting the excitement marinate wasn’t a core intention for him, only a side-effect.)
“It felt like it would be the right thing to do, to give [Polyvinyl] one normal [release cycle],” Rosenstock says, laughing at his own promotional mischief. But, the truth is, he didn’t want everyone to think his surprise album drops were just a bit. “I get so fucking self-conscious when things that I’m doing because it’s what I feel like doing seem like some sort of angle or some sort of marketing thought,” he adds. “I’m trying to just move through this world as honestly and quietly as possible while making loud music.”
After time passed once HELLMODE was announced and he went through some self-reflection, Rosenstock quickly came to a conclusion about all of it: “I really do like putting out records spontaneously. There’s a nice feeling when we share it together—writers and the audience and the band and the record label. There’s a palpable sense of excitement there, and I missed that this time around.” There was a trade-off, though. Rosenstock was able to churn out some cool promo in ways that he wouldn’t have been afforded to had HELLMODE’s existence begun on September 1st—especially the video for “Doubt,” which was animated and storyboarded by Deena Beck, Dashawn Mahone and Najja Porter. I tell Rosenstock that it’s good to have a spectrum of different ways of releasing a record, otherwise you won’t really know which avenue you prefer. “You gotta fuck around and find out,” he chirps back without skipping a beat.
Speaking of fucking around and most certainly finding out; After he put out NO DREAM in 2020, Rosenstock returned a year later with the April Fool’s Day joke album SKA DREAM—only for it to take off and become a monster smash among punks, ska freaks and alt heads across the board. But, likely to the dismay of his fanbase, SKA DREAM was a one-time deal, despite the overwhelmingly warm reception blowing Rosenstock’s expectations that folks would listen to it one time halfway through out of the water. “If I didn’t want to be pigeonholed in surprise-releasing records, you can imagine I don’t want to be pigeonholed into making a ska version of every record I make,” he proclaims, chuffed at how his own trolling has taken on a life of its own. “I feel like that’s something that would certainly have diminishing returns. I feel like we were so lucky with how SKA DREAM was received and I am not tempting fate and trying it again. I’m good. I’ll write ska songs again in my life, I’m sure, but doing a ska remake of a record will very likely not happen again—unless I need money! Ska is money, baby. There’s nothing more profitable than a ska cover record of your own record.”
SKA DREAM did, however, come out at—likely—the only possible good time in the 2020s. Aaron Carnes’ book In Defense of Ska came out that same year, and it seemed like cultural opinions of the genre were beginning to soften—much to Rosenstock’s own chagrin. “It’s cool to see that ska is no longer the butt of the joke, at least for a lot of people. People will still be like, ‘Oh, God, I hope ska doesn’t come back!’ And you’ll be like, ‘Shut up,’ and they’ll be like, ‘Actually, I like Less Than Jake!’ I feel like there’s a significant less amount of people picking on ska bands and, very much so critically, people are not picking on ska bands anymore—and, as a ska kid, it’s about fucking time.”
Rosenstock released his first solo mixtape, I Look Like Shit, only a few months after his main hustle Bomb the Music Industry! announced their breakup way back in 2012. But rather than come out of the ashes of that group with another one, he just assembled a tough coterie of good, talented dudes and slapped a Jeff Rosenstock-sized sticker over the hole left by Bomb the Music Industry!’s dissolution. In turn, Rosenstock has been working with the same band—John DeDomenici, Dan Potthast, Mike Huguenor and Kevin Higuchi—since We Cool?, though the work done under his own name is unshakable and forever, no matter who exits the band or what disastrous upheaval hits them. “[Jeff Rosenstock] can’t break up ever, this will be it. Even if the four of us die in a fire while we’re cheating on each other’s spouses or whatever the fuck, it’s still my name. If I was going to put out a record, it would still come out under my name,” Rosenstock says, before quickly clarifying: “Obviously it wouldn’t get like that and I like everybody I play music with and I don’t want any of them to die in a fire. I love them.”
Initially, the quintet went back and forth on whether to give themselves a real-deal band name (one that was not Death Rosenstock, as they affectionately have referred to themselves in liner notes for eight years) or go by Jeff Rosenstock—only making the final decision at the last second when the “Hey Allison!” 7-inch was about to go to print. “I might have even fucking flipped a coin and called in my name,” Rosenstock says. “What better way to make a decision?” But the reality of it all is that none of it ever felt like going from a band to a solo project for Rosenstock. He was moving from one band to another band, and the songs he wrote for Bomb the Music Industry! came together just like the songs for Jeff Rosenstock do now a decade later. “It’s me writing and exploring and arranging things and having fun with that,” he adds. “The process is very similar with this band, except this band practices.”
HELLMODE was recorded at EastWest Studios on Sunset Boulevard and Atomic Garden in East Oakland. The former is such a legendary musical space, having housed recordings ranging from Elvis’ 1968 comeback special to Thriller to Like A Prayer to Mother’s Milk. The experience was a cool, humbling one for Rosenstock, who claims that he and the band had stars in their heads the whole time—as they shared the recording space with jazz bands and movie composers and a rapper (who Rosenstock can’t quite remember the name of) who booked a room for 24 hours a day for two weeks and would come in at midnight. For that small slice of time that HELLMODE was being made, the world of Jeff Rosenstock became a cog in the wondrous machine of Hollywood coolness.
“I had a day where I was just running shit from HELLMODE through the fucking echo chambers that were used on Pet Sounds,” he says. “That’s huge for me! What a fucking dream. We had a parking spot in the back. It certainly energized me. I was like, ‘How do we get this to sound like something from those major label punk records in the ‘90s—the ones that sounded good, the ones that sounded like the band went somewhere real and had somebody record it well and have that punch?’ I don’t know if the space necessarily made that so or anything, but it was cool to see all the names on the wall and feel like we were part of that continuum of music. We’re a bunch of scrappy weirdos and we don’t often feel like w’ere a part of it. God, the piano there sounds so good. There’s hardly any piano on HELLMODE but playing that piano, I was like, ‘Fuck! I wish these were all piano songs.’”
Rosenstock’s longtime producer Jack Shirley is behind the boards again and, together, they have really vaulted their partnership into the Neil Young/David Briggs echelons of collaboration. On We Cool?, Shirley told the band to get in a room together and play live and, despite Rosenstock never having done a record that wasn’t double-tracked before, their chemistry prevailed—all because of Shirley’s intuition and ability to push a band to not overthink their own limitations and to capture everything they’ve practiced. Five albums later and that method is still being attacked by Rosenstock—only now, they’ve fully figured out how to perfect using space to experiment with layering and lush arrangements while also maintaining a trademark, volcanic bent. “Jack and I both like music where it sounds like somebody pushed all of the faders up,” Rosenstock says. “It’s cool to work with somebody who’s got so much fucking skill and is so good, while also being completely unafraid of blowing everything to bits. I like Slant and I like Dear Nora, a wide range of loud to quiet, and it’s cool working with somebody who can really harness both.”
You can hear that spectrum of volume all over HELLMODE. It’s vivid on tracks like “LIKED U BETTER” and “WILL U STILL U.” But, most poignantly, it arrives on the album’s closing number “3 Summers”—this giant wall of distorted, fuzzed-out guitar sounds that is, maybe (probably), one of Rosenstock’s greatest works yet. At seven minutes in length and a massive construction that sweeps just as garishly as anything he’s done since POST-, “3 Summers” is the longest track he has taken on—as he reflects on how his own misgivings have affected the world (“If I can’t help myself from freaking out, how am I gonna live?”), only to bundle that in a hopeful, beautiful sentiment of love and affection for survival (“I want the warmest breeze to blow, I want the banks and schools to close, I want the universe to glow for you”). If you prop the song up against anything from Worry—which was just a collection of a dozen sub-three-minute cuts—it sounds like it came from another planet, and it could’ve even gone five minutes longer. But there’s a reward in letting a track organically swell and allowing yourself to jam and work through different patterns and styles in a space that is no longer confined to brevity.
“On [HELLMODE], I really was trying to ignore my producer instinct of ‘Great song, how do we trim it down to three minutes?’ NO DREAM was very much like, aside from the last two songs, as compact as possible. But, I listen to a lot of Built to Spill and when they stretch out, it’s so fucking cool. I was just trying to find more of my own space to stretch out. Songs like ‘DOUBT’ and ‘SOFT LIVING,’ in particular, those are songs where I felt like the ending I wanted them to get to didn’t hit if they didn’t have the build-up. I feel like trying to cut it out made those parts less effective. ‘SOFT LIVING’ was a minute-and-a-half shorter and it was done, but I was like ‘It doesn’t feel like it’s done, it feels like it wants to keep jamming.’ And so I was like, ‘Fuck it! Who fucking cares? Maybe this is the record that’s got some jams on it.’ I try to challenge myself on every record, in a lot of ways, in an effort to make it feel different than the last one. This record, it was to let the songs open up into wider spaces when they wanted to and not be afraid of it not being punk or not being afraid of it going on for too long—remembering, ‘Oh, yeah, I like long songs, too. That’s an okay thing to do. Give it some space, let it vibe.’”
If you listen closely to the background harmonies of “3 Summers” (and other checkpoints on the album), you’ll hear glimpses of Laura Stevenson’s vocals. Stevenson and Rosenstock have been tight since their Bomb the Industry! days 20 years ago, and she’s appeared on every one of his records since POST- (and Rosenstock helped Stevenson demo many of her pre-The Big Freeze tracks and even produced Cocksure), but it’s been their two recent EPs of Neil Young covers that has really solidified their bond—as their deep, shared knowledge of Young’s music has given them even more space to tour, sing and hang out together without having to do any of the work of writing new material. It also doesn’t hurt that Young’s artistic ethos is a driving, motivational force for the kind of imprint that Rosenstock and Stevenson have tried to leave on their own musical communities. “He takes chances and risks and he’s a part of the major label system, but he still seems very punk and he does not do what you’re supposed to do. He makes what he wants to make,” Rosenstock adds. “It’s fucking cool that somebody could go for so long and just keep doing shit under the pretense of ‘I think this is cool, so I’m gonna do it’ and not have that fear.”
Working with collaborators who have become family—like his Antarctigo Vespucci bandmate Chris Farren and Stevenson and Mikey Erg—has really changed Rosenstock’s whole world and helped him shed his own fears as an artist who has to take risks to stay afloat. There’s a gloss of encouragement and a painless honesty that comes from a place of everybody involved wanting to make the best thing possible. Having that ecosystem around him has made Rosenstock feel more competent to take risks that, six years ago, he would have been afraid to go all in on. For years, he’s felt an immense hesitancy to explore the space of a quiet, pretty song—something that he first tried on “We Begged 2 Explode” in 2016 and “9 / 10” two years later, due greatly in part to Stevenson’s presence and faith in what Rosenstock could do, both vocally and constructionally.
“I’m a fucking human walking around this world and I want to make all the music and I don’t want to be cornered into ‘I only do this thing, because that’s the thing people know me for or that’s the thing that people like.’ And sometimes, it’s scary, because you don’t want to make something that you actively think people are going to dislike because it’s not what they want from you,” he says. “And Laura really has made me feel good about my quiet voice and made me feel good about singing instead of screaming. That’s really opened me up to doing that more. And hopefully, in doing that, making the parts where I am screaming and where it is crazy feel more powerful—because there’s more contrast there.”
“9 / 10” still, more than five years later, is one of Rosenstock’s most-streamed songs (1st on Apple Music, 2nd on Spotify) and for good reason—it’s a tender, Broadway-style rock ballad that was, at the time, unlike anything we’d ever heard from him before. POST- was a documentation of the first year in Trump’s America, and the way that “9 / 10” flaunted theatrics and subdued Rosenstock’s raucous squawk into a lush, imperfect stream of vocals greatly spoke to the unraveling political climate it was released into. “Every vacant moment you’ve exhausted all the options that you thought could fill the hole,” he sings, harmonizing with Stevenson. “Every star you’re wishing on just hoping for a little self-control. Tired of feeling selfish, you’re tired of feeling restless—you’re tired of feeling down!” Rosenstock calls the song his “heel turn,” though there’s no villainous origin story to be found—in fact, it’s deftly the opposite.
HELLMODE is a large collection of anthemic subversions that counteract anything we’ve come to expect from Rosenstock’s oeuvre. Here, he balances darkness and lightness—singing about the guilt he feels taking luxury Lyfts to the airport while people on the streets are starving. “Don’t you pretend the world is treating us all equal,” he opines. “I know it’s not okay, but I still participate.” Too often, contemporary albums that fashion themselves as being pieces of the revolution are rife with convoluted, half-assed fluff about refusing to become pawns in a capitalist death trap. I suppose the intentions are good there, but in present-day America it’s impossible to resist every inch of consumerism. To live, you must spend money; to survive, you must spend money. What’s refreshing about HELLMODE is Rosenstock’s disinterest in faking it for the sake of continuity. He has a label deal, a big gig making music for a successful television show and he’s accumulated a following that pushes him closer to being in that esteemed group of mainstream-adjacent musicians who might just escape a tour without dipping into the red. He’s not a poor punk self-releasing records anymore.
Rosenstock wanted to make HELLMODE as truthful and as honest of a portrait of the last few years as possible—which meant chronicling terror while also capturing moments of having real big feelings about smaller moments, like taking a breath or finding joy in a patch of rainfall. A song like “LIFE ADMIN” came about because he wanted to be truthful about tumbling into a quantifiable amount of success in the last few years—something he’s still not comfortable with having. Rosenstock tackles imagery often personified by suburban dads, but he’s really just attempting to make sense of his own newfound privilege in ways that also don’t shy away from the worries about being honest about the truth: He’s not the loud guy gigging his way through life in New York City anymore; he’s married in California now, doesn’t pay rent, can fuck off to the desert whenever he wants and will chalk a day up as a good one if he gets to listen to a Slaughter Beach, Dog record. “Gathering spider eggs in my bougie basement, now I’m living with the fear that anyone will find out how I live,” he sings on “LIFE ADMIN.” “Having barbecues out on the deck, drinking ice cold beers under a fire season sunset.”
“I thought it was a funny thing to try and write about that while also putting together my studio a little bit better and dropping screws and losing shit,” he says. “You can take the punk out of—you can take the, what is it? You can take the punk out of the punk house but you can’t take the punk house out of the punk? I don’t know, I still feel dumb and stupid, no matter if things are going well or not. We still make the same mistakes and keep the same personality. I was trying to admit some things I feel less comfortable about with myself, trying to be vulnerable—because I’m an idiot and I want to make vulnerable songs, for some reason.”
In Los Angeles, Rosenstock is able to live in close proximity to a bunch of musicians he cares deeply about—though he argues that, even when you’re in LA, you’re never really that close to anyone else. But, Rosenstock shares a city with Farren and Jay Som’s Melina Duterte and, while they and Frankie Impastato were making Farren’s Doom Singer together, he was able to pop over and play sax and kick it. The same goes for Diners, Blue Broderick’s band that Rosenstock recently joined the live version of. “It’s cool to just hangout with Trev [Ducote], Blue and Bob [Vielma] and play music and just get to chill. Music is cool” Rosenstock says, likely gesturing an old-time thumb’s up at his turned-off camera. “It’s nice to be able to play music with other people and I feel like I have friends putting out records that are so good. It’s really exciting to have your friends do stuff that you’re stoked to be super supportive of. It reminds me of the Bomb the Music Industry! days, when we would play shows with a lot of bands who were just always putting out great shit.”
Having that type of community is not just refreshing; it’s essential, too. I look at my home state of Ohio and how the DIY communities around here have shrunk. When Rosenstock was just getting his bearings as a solo artist 10 years ago, acts like The Sidekicks (RIP), Saintseneca, Delay and Tin Armor were cooking up hit record after hit record. There was something in the water in this place then, but it’s damn near almost all gone now—much of that being the loss of a sustainable touring model post-COVID. House shows still exist all over the country, but it’s hard to ignore how few and far-between they’ve become. Bands who are lucky enough to survive the inaccessibility of the industry and make it to bigger rooms feels like a destiny that has never been so unfortunate. But, they say history repeats itself. That sentiment is not always a good one, but it’s gotta be decent at least once and, perhaps, the DIY world is a cyclical one. “It’s gotta be good one time and I will bet that wish on Ohio’s basement show scene,” Rosenstock says, lovingly. To see a trio like Diners, Farren and Rosenstock build a throughline together in one of the most relentless anti-DIY eras is a gift—no matter how big any of them have gotten by now.
But Rosenstock has gotten pretty big—at least in the sense of how big an NYC-bred punk rock musician can get in the 21st century. Yet, no matter where his success has taken him, he’s long been consciously tuned in to what role he has as a person with a sizable platform. Political songs have never been out of his orbit; POST- is a record that was unabashedly centered around the American Dream becoming defined by fear-mongering zealots in two-sizes-too-big suits who were once wrong step away from a nursing home residency. On HELLMODE, Rosenstock writes about senseless gun violence and cop brutality and man-made environmental desolation with poise and anger—while watching the world burn and seeing people die without their oppressors being held accountable spurred rage and wormed its way into the songs.
I think back on the beginning of my conversation with Rosenstock; how, not even a minute in, he was commenting on the construction site that America has become. I’m sure it was nothing more than a subconscious thing to bring up, given that the imagery of construction is also a big part of “HEALMODE.”
“‘HEALMODE,’ it just came to me. And I was like, ‘Thank God every song on this record isn’t going to be fucking bleak,’” Rosenstock says. “I was just standin’ and the song popped in there and I chased it. Saying ‘chase’ makes it sound so insane, but I just felt it out. I’m never trying to make an entirely bleak record or anything like that. It’s tricky when those things really take up so much emotional space throughout your day, just because of what modern existence feels like—which is us looking at our phones, looking at all of these terrible things all day long. You take a break from work and you look at social media and you either see something crazy or somebody showing off. It’s weird.”
But there’s this idea that spans the entirety of Rosenstock’s newest project; this graceful charting of what it means to not just grow older and grow further into the comforts of being able to afford to live but to accept that, despite our best efforts to speak out against the ways in which the world is fucked, we are also to blame for that—to some extent, be it a crumb or a whole feast. It’s pretty punk to deliver sermons on inequity and challenge the bigoted, suppressive and capitalist scum that plagues the world; to really dig into those convictions as a monthly listeners count continues to rise; it’s also pretty punk to own up to your mistakes and make peace with the finality of a life we have no choice but to ache through.
What we can do, however, is take a page out of Jeff Rosenstock’s book and encourage the people around us to practice kindness towards one another. We can try to stop destroying the planet, too. The anger and the chaos and the high-volume energy that has long defined Rosenstock’s breadth of work hasn’t washed away. But, the likelihood of us being able to reverse our misgivings is slim-to-none, because you can’t take back centuries of brutality. “Oh please, hurry up, someone, come and save me from all these magic moments I’ve forgotten,” Rosenstock sang on “We Begged 2 Explode” seven years ago. Now, he has found a home in the niche of life’s irreversible truths on HELLMODE—a place where it’s possible to, finally, begin relearning how to archive the fleeting wonders of a dying world. It’s true that we can never let the cops or the landlords win; that we must stop littering and continue putting a microphone in front of the voices that class warfare has rendered silent. But, when there’s a lull in the turmoil, I’d say it’s okay to listen to the power tools pulling up the city streets. On HELLMODE, it’s okay to find worthwhile music within the noise.
Watch Jeff Rosenstock’s Paste studio session from 2021 below.
Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.