NO DREAM album cover
An interview with Jeff Rosenstock about police brutality protests, his recent album NO DREAM, affecting change in immovable institutions, and more.
Young Fenimore Lee | June 09, 2020

Jeff Rosenstock’s career is defined by his stance as an “anti-capitalist and anti-fascist.” For years, he watched the ground shift beneath him as the music industry converted, in protracted, sudden bursts, to a different strain of the same exploitative industry it has always been. Defiant as always, he stuck his foot in the ground, began his own donation-based record label, and stood by doing what he knew was right.

And what was right, for him, was making music celebrating the power of people to create change. “Scram!” from his latest album, NO DREAM, is not the first time he’s sung about the right to go to school without fear of being murdered. Many of his lyrics decry violence against the unarmed: “Fuck off the internet, I’m tired of circling amongst apologists who love ignoring the reality of unarmed civilians executed publicly,” from “To Be a Ghost…” on WORRY. But ultimately, “To Be a Ghost…” tells us that “you’ve got power when they’re not expecting anything.” In this moment, while the American people struggle to take their streets back from belligerent forces, these lyrics feel as potent as anything else.

But I know that Jeff Rosenstock doesn’t need much introduction: the music industry fear him when he exposes their lies, listeners love him for his honest spirit, and I love him because he has made some of the most celebrated and powerful punk music of our time, whether that’s with The Arrogant Sons of Bitches, or with Bomb the Music Industry!, or as a solo artist. He’s the paragon of an ally to BIPOC, queer people, and the undermined everywhere. Last Monday, editor Ali Cyrus Saeed and I (Young Fenimore Lee, editor-in-chief) sat down for an interview with him. Without further ado, here’s our conversation.

NO DREAM album cover

Young Fenimore Lee: You’ve been tweeting a lot about the recent events (the police brutality at the protests, etc). It’s 2020, and you’ve been singing about school shootings, mass shootings, and the systemic disintegration of black bodies and protestors and poor people for a long time. How do you feel about what’s been going on lately, and how do you feel like we can contribute? There’s mutual aid, there’s direct action, but how can we live with ourselves?

Jeff Rosenstock: It’s going to be difficult to live with ourselves until this problem gets solved. I’m hoping that it’s not going to be just one week of civil unrest that eventually tapers off with people forgetting what they saw the police do this weekend. I think for people like us, who already understand what’s going on, it’s going to be protesting, trying to raise awareness, raise funds, all those things. I’m hoping that people who are opening their eyes to this stuff for the first time don’t think this is a problem that started in 2020. I think it’s important that if you’re just becoming aware of this, to look at the books, the articles, the movies, and everything that people are sharing, that are saying, “hey, just so you know, this did not just happen. Look at all this stuff. It’s ugly, but you’ll come out of it understanding that we can’t allow this shit to stand anymore.”

Ali Cyrus Saeed: I saw on Twitter, you mentioned The Rise of the Warrior Cop, which is a fantastic book. Are there any other pieces of art or literature like this that have been inspiring you in these times?

JR: I haven’t read every single book on everything, and I don’t want to put myself forward as a person like that, but I know that book, The Rise of the Warrior Cop, and the old classic A People’s History of the United States, were two books that, when I read them, made me adjust how I think about things. To an extent, because I went into both of them knowing that what I’ve been taught was wrong. Those are two books that I think are really good starting points for people.

YFL: On another interview, you talked about how working on Craig of the Creek was a big part of why there was so much punk on NO DREAM, along with running, driving a lot, and the music you were listening to.What was the music that you were listening to?

JR: It was a lot of stuff that I liked when I was a kid: The Mr. T Experience, The Muffs, Green Day, Scared of Chaka, Dillinger Four, The Suicide Machines, The Chinkees. Stuff like The Ramones and The Undertones; bands that put out records that have a lot of good songs on it, where you can listen to the whole thing and it’s all good. But it’s not like I wasn’t listening to those bands before. I was also thinking about making an urgent punk record, one that has a different pace than the punk I’m hearing now.

YFL: Why do you think you were listening to more of that stuff in particular?

JR: I think it’s because I was always in motion. I was listening to a lot of ambient stuff also, which blossomed around the time when I was working on POST-. That was me trying to slow down. I’m making circular motions with my hand that you can’t see, so that’s not very helpful. (laughs) But yeah, stop spinning so fast, stop oscillating at such a high speed. By the time we started working on NO DREAM a year and a half later, I was listening to music that would give me energy, that would get me back to oscillating at that high speed, you know?

But I feel like it’s important that as you get older, that you remain urgent, that you continue to push yourself to not get burnt out by things. And I think that translates to protests, too. That translates to what you see on the news and how you feel about things and act about things. I think that it’s important to remain energetic and feel ready to fight for a long time. That’s maybe where the energy came from. It certainly was not a “go back to the feeling of the Bomb days, or return to your roots” energy. I think that shit is lame and it’s weird when bands do that. You don’t fucking know what was special about that band when you were that band, so it’s dumb to try to guess what it was. This is more about continuing to charge hard when you’re old.

YFL: Yeah, to keep that spirit that old people say goes away at a certain age.

JR: Yeah. I think that you can allow yourself to let it go away, or you can just keep poking the nest. I get really self conscious about not being able to do whatever I want to do when we play live. I don’t want to just stand there and be out of breath. “Yeah, thanks for coming.” (laughs) I was like, alright, I better get used to being out of breath for an hour every day.

Once, we were playing in The Bruce Lee Band, and we were opening for Less Than Jake, and Less Than Jake gave me this foam head to run around on stage. I remember after 10 seconds, I was like, “I’m going to die. I have no oxygen in here and I’m going crazy.” Afterwards, I was in the alley gasping for air, and Dan P is like, “I knew you went too hard in those first 10 seconds!” So now, when we’re playing these long-ass sets, I try not to put everything in the first minute.

YFL: In a Dan Ozzi interview you did, you talked about how you “don’t think of the music industry at all,” that you think about bands and your musician friends. We’re young music writers and musicians - what do you think we need to do to make these waves in the music industry, and make large scale changes in institutions that feel impossible to change?

JR: First of all, I think what you’re doing with Jellybones, having a publication dedicated to making space, I think that’s great. I was almost feeling regretful for taking up space that could be saved for POC/queer artists, etc, but I also thought it was nice that you wanted to talk to me.

Once I stopped looking at music as something that was to be my livelihood, and I just got another job and remained passionate about music, and I stopped putting the focus on trying to get ahead and what the next step was, and I was just enjoying the moment that I was in, that’s when all the special things happened for me as a musician. It’s still pretty much the same right now. It’s different because we do rely on this to stay afloat in a way that we didn’t before, because we’re just on the road so much, but we all still do have other jobs. So, I think that doing the thing you want is most important, and nurturing it the way you want to is more important than trying to figure out what steps you have to take to monetize it. You know? And it depends on the amount of time you would have to put into it. It’s tricky, because it’s hard to dedicate a ton of time if you’re working all of that time. It takes late nights, and sometimes it doesn’t even happen at all.

YFL: Out of curiosity, have you been following Glass Beach at all?

JR: That’s a band that everyone in the world recommended to me all on the same day, and it kind of makes it hard for me to dip my toes in at my own pace, but they’re cool. They got cool vibes.

Jeff Rosenstock Picture

(Photo by Christine Mackie.)

YFL: I don’t know if you know this, but their singer Classic J, they were in the crowd vocals on WORRY., which is a cool little tidbit.

JR: I saw that, and I think that’s sick. It’s funny how that works out. I was in San Jose at this show that our friends in The Albert Square were playing, along with some other touring bands. The show was in the back room of this pornography shop in a strip mall. Three or four years later, I found out that the other bands playing that show were Modern Baseball and Tiny Moving Parts, who we went on tour with. There’s a picture of me in the corner of that back room doing whatever. I think I found this out three months after that tour, and my friends were like, “holy shit, Jeff! Is that you?” And I was like, “oh yeah, I was totally at that show.” I think Walter Etc. was at that show too, and I produced their next record. But yeah, long story short, people who go to shows… that’s cool. (laughs)

ACS: Last year, you issued a re-press of Three Cheers for Disappointment by The Arrogant Sons of Bitches. I understand that the protracted difficulties associated with making this album contributed to the dissolution of the band. Since then, the album has reached a near mythical status in the online music community, which is how I first encountered it. You’d been hinting at this repressing for a long time, how did you decide that last year was the right time?

JR: We just had some time off, so we were able to repress it, because we do a lot of these things ourselves. Christine and I can’t receive two thousand records at our apartment when we’re on tour. We knew we wanted to get Three Cheers back in press, if only because it was going for 100 dollars on Discogs and I just didn’t want to see that happening anymore.

I don’t know anything about its mythical status online. I do my best not to look at that stuff because I want to remain focused. But I’m always like, “how do people find out about Three Cheers for Disappointment?” Our band existed after ska was popular and before everybody was really online (we just had message boards to talk to each other, there was no social media), so I’m always confused about how people found out about it.

ACS: How did you feel while revisiting the album? Was it all just business to you at that point, or was it emotional?

JR: Yeah, for sure. Whenever I’m listening back to that record (which is not like I do it every day, but for a test press or something), I’m always so stoked that we played so fast on that record.

ACS: I can’t imagine how any band could keep it together as well as you guys did.

JR: (laughs) That’s nice of you to say! We were on tour for a very long time, and that was our thing that we recorded at the end of our band being a band. I listen to it, and I think about the people who I made that record with. Joe Bove’s bass lines on that record are so fucking sick. I think about Steve Foote who recorded that record. I think about my friend AJ who recorded a version of that record that was on a hard drive that disappeared, but also wasn’t good, so we scrapped our record 60% into it. I just think about my friends. It was nice just to see Dave’s name written somewhere. Reflecting on it feels like looking at a picture or something, and being like, “Oh, yeah, that was a wild thing. That was a time in my life, and I like those people.” You know? And we all still talk to each other, and we’re all still friends.

ACS: Do you miss living in New York yet?

JR: Uh, I don’t know where I miss living. I moved out here in January, went straight to work on the show, and then we recorded NO DREAM. Then I came back, and I was like, OK, time to do the artwork. Once I did the artwork, I had cartoon work. Finally, I’m ready to see what Los Angeles is all about. And then COVID happened.

YFL: Who should we be paying attention to in the punk scene that no one else is paying attention to?

JR: I know two sick bands that my friend Jack Shirley, who recorded NO DREAM, has recorded that I really liked – Screaming Fist from the bay area and Soul Glo from Philly. Soul Glo is a sick band, they’re saying real shit and I like them a lot. I was listening to some stuff that Jack was playing me while we were working on the record, and I was just like, this is fucking awesome. And Screaming Fist, they’re fucking sick. They’re great. Fast, punk, very good.

cute drawing here
Editor-in-Chief
Young Fenimore Lee
(he/him)
Pictured: Henry, his pet Jellybone
Young is the child of two Korean musicians and was born and raised in the Chicago metropolitan area. They identify as queer and non-binary. They're currently going through emocore/screamo essentials, and they love indie rock, indie folk, emo, post-hardcore, and math rock. Feel free to take a look at their rateyourmusic account, their last.fm, and this collage of the 100 albums they consider most personally important.
cute drawing here
Editor
Ali Cyrus Saeed
(he/him)
Pictured: Willow, his pet TV Star
Ali was born in Karachi, Pakistan and has spent most of his life in the Chicago suburbs. A guitarist and avid fan of independent and alternative rock music, he’s particularly fond of auxiliary percussion, analog synths, sloppy guitars, repetitive outros, and long sentences.