Jeff Rosenstock on Aaron Carter, Video Games, Bleakness, and the Ups and Downs of Doing It Live

Jeff Rosenstock on Aaron Carter, Video Games, Bleakness, and the Ups and Downs of Doing It Live
Photo by Matt Price

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OK, let's get down to business: Jeff's joining the Two-Timers Club today (other members currently: Panda Bear aka Noah Lennox of Animal Collective, and Protomartyr's Joe Casey). Last time we talked, things were dark; now, things are, well, still dark—but, hey, Jeff's got a great new album out tomorrow, HELLMODE, so let's celebrate that. And that we did in a great phone conversation last month, among other subjects as well:

A few years ago, I was interviewing Cass McCombs, and he said to me that he thinks musicians should be unionized. What do you think a musicians' union would look like?
Oh God, I have no idea. I think everybody would have to join it. We'd have to have solidarity across the board, and unfortunately music can be really competitive. Suzie True would have to get on board the same way that Queens of the Stone Age would have to get on board. Everybody would have to be a part of it.

If we had that kind of solidarity, we could address things that could really affect fans at the end of the day—merch cuts, ticketing fees, things where corporations are taking extra money from us and forcing bands to charge more tickets as a result. With merch, you have to price it up to make sure you're not suffering from the merch cuts, because if you're a band like us, your profit margins are already slamming shut because you're trying to keep it cheap.

A sweet thing about a musicians' union would be making things feel less competitive and more like we're working together—and, oh God, we could try to get our streaming rates up! I didn't even think about that. It's not zero money, but it's a ridiculous percentage that we're getting paid.

I did a story last year about the tyranny of merch cuts, and a lot of people who read it were like, "They do this?" They do this! And it's fucking bad.
This kind of shit can happen because, at the end of the day, we're grateful to play music for people—much like the animation industry, where people are grateful to pursue their art and their craft. It puts you in a position where you get taken advantage of, because people are like, "Well, fuck-o, this is the only option. 20% merch cut, plus 10% credit card fee, plus 10% tax. Enjoy your $3." Capitalism isn't working, so it's all just par for the course.

Tell me about the mindset going into this record after NO DREAM, which seemed to be a bit of a new breakthrough for you audience-wise.
The process never really changes that much for me. I try to always be writing. I'll take a bunch of songs in my head and start demoing them to see how they take shape. But this one was different in a bunch of ways, especially since I moved out here to L.A., so some of the songs straddle Brooklyn and California in their gestational periods.

Also, obviously, there was a pandemic, and there was a lot of time at home. I wasn't writing writing writing, it was more if I was wondering if I was actually gonna ever do this again. I wasn't like, "I'm gonna save up on my jams and strike when the iron's hot!" At a certain point, we had a tour with NNAMDÏ and Catbite that got postponed because of Omicron—it seemed insane to try to tour for four weeks without getting COVID—and I had an extra week or two in my schedule, so I took all my stuff and went out to the desert. I didn't really know what the record was, at all. I was just like, "If these songs are bad, then that's fine. If I don't even make any songs and just sit in the middle of nowhere quietly for five days, that's fine too."

I tried to give myself no pressure, and maybe that might've been an emotional and mental response to NO DREAM and SKA DREAM having positive reactions from people. My goal when making a new record is to make it better than the last one—otherwise, why are you making a record? I was trying to get out of that headspace and empty out my little brain to see what happens. I was surprised, because it was really nice. I just read a lot and looked at the sky and made a lot of music, and when I was done I was like, "Oh shit! This is a record! I like this one!"

I called Seth from Polyvinyl and was like, "Good news, I wrote a record!" And he was like, "Thank God." With me, there's not really plans to get me back in the studio, so I'm just like, "Hey, record's here, we can do it." He asked me if I wanted to go to a big studio, and I said, "Can we afford that?" And he said, "I think we can with this one!" I ended up with something that I was pretty proud of in demo form, so we wanted to see what we could do in a traditional fuckin' continuum-of-music music studio. The Beach Boys recorded Pet Sounds in one of the rooms there!

You worked with Jack Shirley again, who is obviously a sweetheart. Tell me about your guys' creative relationship over the years.
Jack's great. He's really humble, really smart, and really fun. He'll work hard to get the shit down. He's a weird guy in a way [Laughs], because he'll very much be like, "Let's document what's happening in the room—let's get the truth." But he won't settle for recording something shitty either, which is great. He's the perfect kind of person for me to work with because he's so good at the capture, as well as getting it right on the way in—and I'm not. When I record stuff, I just put a mic somewhere and am like, "Alright, I think it's supposed to go here," and then I record it and think, "Well, this still sounds like shit. Better luck next time."

We both push each other a lot. Once I started getting more involved in the mixes on the records, I'd watch him do stuff that I couldn't possibly do, and I bring stuff to the table that he wouldn't think of doing sometimes. Specifically, he encouraged our band to record We Cool? in a room together, no headphones, straight to tape—which we've done for all of our records since then. That makes our records good, and he figured that out—and he does that with every band he records. "Just track it like it's a band practice."

I'd been frustrated with how the Bomb the Music Industry! records sounded, and not just because of my own limitations. We multi-tracked them, and that juice comes from everyone playing in a room together, and that's something Jack encourages. But for this one, we pushed out of both of our comfort zones. We did a few songs where the guitars were isolated and the drums were in the room on their own, so we could get a bigger and fatter drum sound. We were both really thinking about sonics on this record. How do we make it sound more polished than anything we'd ever done before, while still sounding authentic and raw—and how do we do that in a way where, when everything catches on fire, the contrast between those two things is really effective?

It's fun to make a record with Jack, because he likes shit that sound really good as well as shit that sound like they were recorded in a toilet with the microphone turned up all the way. There's good elements of both things, and it's good to work with someone who has the technical skill and a punk heart—someone who understands that energy is the most important thing.

You alluded to the notion of chaos, and I want to use that to shift to this record's lyrical output. I think there's a sense of catharsis that listeners get from your music—a "We're all in this together" thing. Tell me about digging into the bleakness and finding a balance there.
It's about how I process things, in a lot of ways. When I'm writing lyrics, I'm really just trying to be truthful to how I feel. If that feeling isn't good, I think that that's OK. I don't want to just put negative and sad stuff out there in the world, and I'm kind of conscious of that—but at the same time, I don't think it benefits anyone for me to try not to write from my perspective as far as how I feel about things. So I try not to shy away from it, but as I get older, I also try to be aware of it and figure out effective ways to write about not-bad stuff. That tends to be a challenge for me.

Lyric-writing is cathartic in a sense, and for me it's about processing things and outwardly communicating them, but I need that more when I'm feeling dark things than when I'm not. When I'm not, I'm like, "Oh, cool! Let's go to the beach, hang out, and get a coffee!" I'm just having a nice time. But, also, I don't want to be a sad shit my whole life. I'm trying to figure out how to get through it. It's about having a few starting points, blooming, and seeing what it all means and how it all feels.

Where do you find your bliss?
I don't know. It's been a minute. [Laughs] These days, it's any chance I get to take a break. If I get two days in a row where I don't have to solve some sort of problem, that's my bliss. Honestly, I have a harder time thinking of bliss moments than "turn your brain off" moments—running, playing Zelda. That's the kind of stuff, though. where it's like, "Is it unwinding, but is it healthy or are you just perpetuating a cycle?" I don't know. I like to go for walks, I like to get drinks with friends, I like to go to the beach. Watching basketball.

As long as you're not hurting anybody or literally ingesting poison, I feel like if you're doing something that feels good, that's enough.
I am literally hurting people, though. That's my bliss. [Laughs]

So you're playing Zelda?

What kind of gamer are you?
I think calling me a "gamer" would probably upset the gaming community. I have a Switch and that's it. I'm casual? I'm not very good at video games, I just like them. I tend to gravitate towards hack'n'slash-y Metroidvanias, as they're called. I was getting really into bullet hell games when I was recording this record. I was playing a lot of Vampire Survivors and Danmaku Unlimited 3. It's all chaos, but there's a pattern in the chaos, and if you play them too long, you see bullet hell patterns everywhere you look.

Whenever I've seen this album's title, I've thought about how punishing and repetitive roguelikes—which I love—can be. It's like leveling up in life through all the obstacles.
The hardest thing imaginable. That's a thing in some games: Once you beat it on ultra difficult, it's like, "Alright, here's hellmode. I'd love to see you try." I was playing Hades a lot while making this record, which had something to to do with it too.

Great game. Hades was a real lifesaver during the first year of the pandemic.
Yeah, man. I think a lot about Animal Crossing: New Horizons and what a fucking cultural moment that was, just because it came out right at the beginning of the pandemic. Everyone was like, "Sweet! I'm just gonna sit back and have some island life for a while."

Tell me about the Aaron Carter reference in the album cut "Soft Living." That jumped out to me almost immediately.
That song is kind of free-associative, about moving from New York to out here because I was like, "OK, maybe I'm going to try to make this composer thing happen?" We drove cross-country, and I bought a car while we were out here looking for a place that I left at my brother's place in Palmdale. I went out there to pick up my car and we went to Target to pick up some seltzers for our new place, and we saw a guy with a face tattoo and [Jeff's wife Christine] was like, "Yo, that's Aaron Carter." It was weird that Aaron Carter was at this fuckin' Target in Palmdale, looking kind of shaggy with a face tattoo, walking around like a normie. It was weird to have a celebrity sighting immediately, and for that to be the celebrity sighting. It felt like an L.A. thing, but I was in fuckin' Palmdale.

Obviously, Aaron Carter passed away, and it's really sad, and I was like, people are regular people, we all live, we all die. It doesn't matter if you were famous for a little bit or rich for a minute, we all have our struggles—and I'm not saying that to empathize with billionaires or anything like that. Dude was going through some shit! He's also Aaron Carter, teen sensation. I thought more about how to explain it since he passed away, of course, because I figured I would have to. But at the time, I just liked how the words sounded, and the imagery was interesting. That moment was weirdly seared into my brain as the first thing that happened when I moved out here.

The last time we talked, we spoke about uncertainties about live shows returning. You were actually the first show I saw when things opened up, at Warsaw in Brooklyn. One thing that stood out in my mind was being in the mosh pit masked up and seeing everyone else wearing one too. In terms of musical communities, there's a collective responsibility that gets passed down when it comes to punk. Tell me about being back out there and seeing all of that play out through your eyes.
It's a lot of ups and downs, to be honest. That first tour back was incredible. The people who come to our shows are really great, and 99.9% of everyone is really respectful of each other, and they're all there to have a good time and not fuck up anyone's shit. It was nice to play those shows on that tour and see so much of the audience masking up, because they wanted to take care of each other and not spread. We all acknowledged that we were in a gray area, but we wanted to tour and play shows.

When Omicron started happening, it got really crazy, and I feel really lucky that we made it through without anyone getting COVID. That was also when everybody just kind of stopped caring slowly. We were on a tour where our band were dropping off one by one in the UK and couldn't do the tour anymore. Mike and Dan were staying out in the middle of nowhere, and John had to miss our London show—but also the culture there is different, so people were like, "You should just go to work if you have COVID!" And we were like, "I don't know about that..." We were asking people to wear masks, and people were like, "This band's stupid," or, "This band's doing a weird thing but we'll support it," or, "You better fuckin' wear a mask, you asshole!"

It was just a lot, and I just wanna play music. I don't want to make those decisions. We're just doing everything we can to make people feel safe at the show. Nobody would make a decision about what the fuckin' protocols were, so our band and crew had to make it in our fuckin' Discord. That's how a global pandemic was handled, which is really disheartening. Whenever we'd actually play a show, though, it was the best. It's hard to put into words. We just really like playing music with each other, and it's really fun to play for people again and feel that energy. We felt warmly welcomed by everybody. It was like coming home again.

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Jamie Larson