Jeff Rosenstock on Long Island, Cartoons, and Just How Fucked Up Shit Is Right Now

Jeff Rosenstock on Long Island, Cartoons, and Just How Fucked Up Shit Is Right Now

I do believe that Jeff Rosenstock’s No Dream is the Long Island-hailing, L.A.-residing (he left Greenpoint to move there this year) pop-punk veteran’s best album yet. It’s certainly in the sphere of my favorite albums of the year right now (for those not keeping track, it’s in company with Punisher, Color Theory, and 925). At my lowest ideological moments, his music makes me feel alive, and that’s what the best music does.

When we got on the phone last week, we talked a lot about the state of the world and what it means to be someone who’s trying to support the people around you. He’s a funny and inspiring guy to talk to, as soul-nourishing as throwing on one of his records.

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How’s living in Los Angeles been?

Fine? It’s great, because we have more space—but, and I don’t know if you noticed, there’s a pandemic happening and we can’t go anywhere. I moved out here thinking I would see places and explore, and the second we were done with No Dream and I had some space from my work on Craig on the Creek, everything shut down and hasn’t come back. We like where we live, but everything feels bad and weird right now.

How has it been working on Craig on the Creek?

It’s the best. I can’t overstate how much I love doing it. Every time I get an episode to work on, I can just tell how much love and thought is put into every frame. It’s an amazing thing to be a part of.

Also, I have this compulsion to make music, and it’s nice to have an outlet to do so where, at the end of the day, I don’t have to figure out how to package or sell it. I don’t even have to think about what genius thought I’m trying to articulate. [Laughs] My job is just to make music that articulates the music the characters are feeling. I don’t have to worry about whether it’s consumable content that will keep people hanging on enough. It’s an insane workload, but I like insane workloads.

What cartoons did you watch as a kid?

Golden-era Simpsons, of course. All the Nicktoons—Ren & Stimpy, Doug. The Disney Afternoon stuff, Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers. I liked Garfield and Friends. I liked the [Sonic the Hedgehog] show. Animaniacs. All the things that were on after school. I never really thought about how I grew up watching cartoons after school until I started working on Craig on the Creek. I still watch cartoons, too. I love Bob’s Burgers. Infinity Train is next-level good.

What did you learn about yourself as a child that you’ve carried with you to adulthood?

I was a lonely, weird, depressed, anxious kid—and when you’re feeling those things as a kid, you don’t really have a frame of reference for them. Maybe it’s different now, but it didn’t feel that way then. I felt really alone. Music resonated with me and made me feel less alone as I was shifting from listening to metal to punk—Green Day, Operation Ivy, bands that had lyrics that articulated these feelings. Everclear, too. Any band that was singing about being sad. [Laughs] That’s how I harnessed the flood of emotions that was really going through me as an adolescent.

Writing dozens of shitty songs that no one will ever hear helped, too. I used to sit on the computer and play with this program called Cakewalk, where I’d make MIDI arrangements of songs that I was thinking about, or a ska version of a Descendents song. I learned how to do those things when there was no pressure on me, which I’ve tried to carry over to now. It’s still fun to make a sound and hear what the sound sounds like.

If you were a kid right now in the pandemic, what would you be doing?

If I was from 13 to 18, I don’t know what I’d be doing, because that’s when I was starting to make music with other people like the guys in [The Arrogant Sons of Bitches]. Those guys were like family to me, so I would be pretty devastated if I didn’t have that at that point, or if I wasn’t able to go to the shows where I could feel comfortable and not anxious. I certainly didn’t feel that way sitting around at home.

What does community mean to you?

Well, it’s weird because I haven’t seen anybody or been a part of it for a long time. Also, a lot of things were starting to become too much for me when I was writing [No Dream]. We took a year off of touring because it became a lot. I went from being in several bands that would play to 30-100 people every night for 15 years, to playing for a lot more people very quickly.

With the perspective that the year off gave me, I feel really thankful that the community that’s around our shows are thoughtful, kind, and all about equal rights for everybody and making sure people don’t get fucked with at the shows. They’re funny and creative, and at our shows it’s a lot of weirdos that are weird in the way that I was and still am. That decade I spent in Bomb the Music Industry! was spent playing houses and meeting people who don’t give a fuck about playing by establishment rules. It made me feel less alone. I miss it. I wish I could see them again. After that year off, I was like, “OK! Time to get back into it!” And then it was like, “Nope, you don’t get to go anywhere now.”

I feel like the grieving process is starting to kick in for me with everything.

Which fucking grieving process? [Laughs] There’s, like, five terrible things happening right now.

Life on earth as I knew it? The things I want to see change? Some days I forget there’s a pandemic because there’s so many things happening lately.

I said out loud to my wife last night for the first time, “It’s not ever gonna go back to how it was.” That’s some scary shit. It’s very weird as a musician—and I don’t mean this in any spiritual way—but as musicians, our purposes on this fucking world are gone now. That communication between people, even if it’s five people in a basement, is something we’ve all based our lives on.

It’s really strange to not really have any end in sight right now. You can play a fuckin’ Zoom show and record stuff at home, but it’s not the same thing. It’s devastating, and I don’t know how to come to terms with it beyond knowing that spiralling down into the depths of how dark that is won’t help anything. I try to push the thought back down into the ocean until it washes up again.

Livestreaming doesn’t seem like a sustainable alternative to touring in any way.

Well, clearly there’s no money in it. Bless anyone who’s trying, but I haven’t seen it. I have a fun time doing it, and it’s nice to see people in it, and I think I do a good job at it—I hesitantly say—but I don’t try to make it sound good. I just play a bunch of songs in my phone for a bit. I can do as good of a job as anyone ever has, and it won’t be the same energy as playing loud with my friends. My band is good! I don’t want to play without them. I can fuck up on guitar all the time and know they have my back. Now I have to remember my lyrics and know my songs—and if I burp when I’m singing now, you know that I did.

You’ve always been politically outspoken. What’s your mindset lately?

It’s not incredibly positive, to be honest with you. I’m not trying to say this in a condescending way, because I want everyone to be on the right team—but anyone who’s just opening their eyes over the last four or five months to police brutality against Black people or BIPOC, it’s fucking crazy that they haven’t been paying attention. This isn’t new. We put out Worry before Trump got elected, and afterwards people were like, “Wow, it predicted the future!” No, that album was about the present. This is something that’s been happening.

Maybe this is my own ignorance, but I don’t think we’ve ever been witness to the truth that the police are actually a gang, and that there are no repercussion—as we have watching an endless feed of videos where the police violently retaliate against demonstrators. There’s wide-scale protests across the country where police have been given a free license to try and hurt and kill people. Seeing footage of protesters a few months ago of protestors getting kettled and tear gassed on the Manhattan Bridge—that’s evil shit. It’s good that more people are opening their eyes to it, but [the police] are saying, “We’ll still fucking kill you. There is no Constitution, you don’t have rights. Whaddya gonna do about it?”

I’m not a violent person. The thought that they are going to push it to that level really, really scares me. While I’m not a violent person, I’ll fuckin’ fight for my fellow human beings, you know? I really wish they would just stop killing unarmed Black people and shooting people in the back in front of their children. And when it happens, all they have to do is hold the cops accountable as you would any other murderer! That would be something. But not only are they not willing to give us anything like that, they’re doubling down so hard. “We’re gonna fucking brutalize you. Fuck you.” It’s scary shit. I don’t know what’s gonna come of it.

Right now has been another big wave of how enormously fucked up everything is, after that Blue Lives Matter kid killed those two protestors with an AR-15. Protesters who just care about their fellow humans! I can’t wrap my head around how so many people got tricked into thinking that there’s anything you can gain from not loving each other.

What have the protests you’ve been to like?

It’s been all over the map. Some of them have been big, exciting things where you feel like, “These are my people, and we’re gonna take this on,” and there have been some where you’re like, “I don’t know what the hell is going on here.”

There was a protest that I went to where we got there early, so there were people milling around and getting it started. The woman who was running the protest was cool, and then this guy came over and just started trying to fuck shit up. She was like, “Hey, you’re my brother, I understand that you’re angry, you don’t have to do this.” He walked away, and then he started kicking photographs of people who have been killed by police. She was like, “I understand why you’re angry.” He went and stood somewhere else, and was just yelling.

Now, mind you, this protest is at a police station. So out of nowhere, six cop cars come driving around from I don’t know where. Twenty cops come out, no masks, grab this guy, throw him to the ground and start holding him down. Everybody is screaming, “Don’t hurt him!” And then they put him in a car, and who fuckin’ knows where he is now.

And then there was also a very intense march where we walked through the streets where police have killed unarmed Black folks. “Here’s this place that this person was shot at and killed four months ago.” It ran the gamut of emotions. But having solidarity with people and knowing you’re not in this fight alone—and that the movement for human rights is growing—is a good feeling.

But it’s also scary, because cops are out here to hurt you. It’s easy to imagine that if I retain the same presence for the next for years, the cops are going to come to my house and fuckin’ kill me. We live in very scary, serious times. And you also have you remind yourself that it’s okay to like things, feel joy, and have a sense of humor, because that will keep you alive.

My wife is a fan of your music and wanted to know if you had to get into character to play the second Jeff that appears in the video for “Wave Goodnight to Me.”

The guys who made that video always have me playing a piece of shit. [Laughs] It’s funny to them, but I’m always like, “Come on, man.” [Laughs] Neither of those Jeffs are “me.” One is this gentrifier and the other is this slick guy. I liked being the slick guy more than I liked being the “Nothing’s wrong” whistling guy. They kept telling me to do this cartoonish happy-go-lucky walk, and they were like, “No! You’re too stiff!” We did that for a really long time. I was like, “Can I do a spin?” They were like, “Fine.”

Yeah, my wife wanted to know about the slick guy.

The slick guy I could do all day. That comes from being a musician for a long time and meeting someone who’s got that vibe. Now that I’m in L.A., I get twice as much source material. This whole move to the West Coast is really just method acting. [Laughs]

A sense of humor often plays a role in your music.

It comes from listening to pop-punk and ska growing up. It’s why I had a hard time getting on board with that wave of listless, pretentious indie rock. I’m used to a band like The Mr. T Experience, or the Muffs, or Less Than Jake, or Reel Big Fish—stuff I grew up with. Ska bands don’t get any credit for the fact that they’re addressing dark emotional issues with a punchline—and the punchline is what makes it resonate in a really heartbreaking way.

These aren’t things that I consciously do, but even current bands like Laura Stevenson and the Sidekicks do that. Chris Farren does that all the time. Rappers are constantly doing it. Rap always has a punchline in there—a sick bar that will fuck you up. Killer Mike can be hilarious, but he’s saying real heavy shit. But it’s not like I’m at, “Line seven comes the joke, and line eight I wrap it up.” And I write plenty of songs that have no sense of humor, too. “This is a sad-ass song.” It’s just ingrained in me.

You grew up in Long Island. What does Long Island mean to you?

Long Island is completely different than everywhere else, which I didn’t realize until I started touring. The way towns and cities work is that you’re in a town, you drive twenty minutes, and then you’re in another town—because every town is, like, two miles big.

Long Island to me was about going to punk and ska shows, and how vibrant that scene was. As far as underground music in the mid-to-late-’90s, there were several all-ages shows every day of the weekend, and you could probably play an all-ages show during the week if you wanted to. Once I realized, “My home situation feels weird, I don’t fit in at school and feel weirder there, but going to shows is where I don’t feel weird,” I was lucky enough just to immerse myself in that completely. I don’t know if there’s a lot of places [in Long Island] that were exactly like that, because every town is right on top of itself. You could drive 30 minutes past a million towns where a couple of bands from Babylon have convinced the town to let them play a free show on the Showmobile for kids.

There’s the negative connotations too. People who are wealthy in Long Island really like to show you how wealthy they are, and that can be really off-putting. It’s the thing that outsiders tend to focus on, because it’s funny to make fun of people like that. But there’s all the rest of us too, who were just trying to hang and build a community where you could be weird, crack jokes, and go to diners. It’s very painful for me to be in a city where there aren’t diners open 24/7 right now. That’s what Long Island is to me: ska, punk, hardcore, and diners.

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Jamie Larson