Interview: I Think I Might Be A Bigger Ball of Anxiety Than Jeff Rosenstock

Jeff Rosenstock © Christine Mackie
Jeff Rosenstock © Christine Mackie
Atwood Magazine spoke to Jeff Rosenstock about an unprecedented global pandemic, how growing up is totally overrated, and why the mass psychic liberation we’ve all been waiting for is gonna take some time.
Stream: “Scram!” – Jeff Rosenstock

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No Dream - Jeff Rosenstock
No Dream – Jeff Rosenstock

Jeff Rosenstock wrote a new chapter of musical prophecy with NO DREAM.

Rosenstock always hurls himself, for our benefit and pleasure, into the center of all confusion and comes out with devastatingly relatable songs that quake with a crazed uncertainty we’ve all encountered sometime in our life—and definitely sometime last year. His latest triumph, NO DREAM (released in May via Polyvinyl), has been particularly important to me because 2020 has been such a terrible time, and I’ve needed something to hold onto for dear life. NO DREAM didn’t fill me with love, hope, and visions of a utopic future, but the album’s sense of panic—its nihilism, self-destructive tendencies, and stylistic distortions—did validate the way I felt about things. And what more do you want from music, than for it to bestow the feeling, the sweet relief, that you’ve been seen, that someone out there, someone you’ve never met, actually gets it and has expressed it so clearly and so brilliantly?

There is a terrible pain laced through all of Rosenstock’s work; but, if you listen closely, within that darkness, there is a deep desire for personal redemption and overwhelming compassion for humanity that cuts right through the work. We turn to music not always to find optimism, but to reassure ourselves that we are allowed to feel what we’re feeling; that nothing, like a three-minute punk song, is permanent; that we begin anew, each morning, despite everything we know, against all we know.

Atwood Magazine spoke to Jeff Rosenstock about the global pandemic, how growing up is totally overrated, and why the mass psychic liberation we’ve all been waiting for is going to take some time.

This is my personal experience, but I often feel the highs at the same time as the lows. But that’s for so many people. That’s just how life is.

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:: stream/purchase No Dream here ::
Stream: ‘No Dream’ – Jeff Rosenstock

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No Dream - Jeff Rosenstock

Atwood Magazine: Is there a strange sense of satisfaction for perfectly predicting the shit show of 2020?

Jeff Rosenstock: The album is really just a documentation of what I was going through at the time. All the songs are very personal and very honest about what was feeling when I wrote them. So to look back on them as if they were any sort of indicator of the future – there’s no feeling of pride in that. It’s a nice thing to hear that somebody might feel that way or that it can exist for somebody that’s not just me talking about my fucking feelings, basically. That’s what you want to do when you make a record, but I don’t like to look back on it and go like, “Damn, I was right about that!” I don’t think I have a particularly unique point of view looking at certain things compared to others, really. I would be that proud of myself if my record made it so that everybody’s going to get a million dollars. [laughs]

This year has been depressing for so many reasons, and I've been trying to put into words this new feeling I've been experiencing. I've settled on ''emotional constipation.'' Do you feel emotionally constipated yourself ever?

Jeff Rosenstock: I feel like the opposite of emotionally constipated. I feel like I’m getting this out too much, every time I fucking talk to somebody—and I’m just like, “Ahhhhh!” You know, anytime I see somebody and talk and try to catch up, it’s only so long before we’re talking about how everything’s going to shit. Then the conversation just becomes all about that, and it’s hard to bounce back after. But I’m fine today.

You know, Mark Twain once said that there's nothing more tragic than a young pessimist. The world, for many young people, no longer feels like, for lack of a better term, their oyster. I try to be grateful myself, but there are definitely moments where I think quite negatively. In those moments when you’ve felt pessimistic, what do you do to climb out of those fatalistic feelings?

Jeff Rosenstock: I don’t know. I think maybe the first step is to not put so much pressure on myself to climb out of those fatalistic feelings. How do I put this? It became a bit of a relief to me when I stopped putting so much pressure on myself to immediately feel better. I started forgiving myself for feeling bad if that makes any sense. And that is okay, you know? I just feel really lucky that I can make music, that I can write songs that help me work those emotions. 

I’m not a pessimist or anything like that, but I have always dealt with depression since I can remember. When I was a kid, I could sit in my room and write songs, which served as an outlet for that depression. That was really helpful for me—and I didn’t even really put any of that shit together that much until I started ‘Bomb the Music Industry. That was a time when I was writing songs about what you’re talking about: moving back in with my parents at a point where I shouldn’t be moving back in; that young anxiety about not moving forward fast enough; applying to jobs and not getting them; constantly thinking about when the fuck is any of this gonna work out. The opportunity to just hold a guitar and bang it around a bunch and scream about those feeling was a really nice thing. So to anyone out there reading this, feeling the same way: use your art or really anything at your disposal to get it out! Although I’ll be the first to admit that it is tough—and at some point, you say to yourself, “I’m through it. I made it.” But then there is another thing, you’re back at square one, thinking, “I got this fucking thing to deal with, again.”

Your track “Leave It in the Sun” is, in part, about how the hardest part about growing up in letting go. I’m living back at home myself, and I have had a tough time doing that, as have many young people like myself who have lost their jobs. What about letting go is so important in that journey to better oneself, to “growing up”?

Jeff Rosenstock: That song, in particular, is about the emotional baggage that weighs you down and doesn’t really contribute to anything. I think even the most pessimistic person at the end of the day would like to feel good. I mean, we all try to not hold onto that trauma, but that’s pretty fucking hard because a lot of the time, the past can feel like it defines your identity and you can’t escape it or its consequences. I struggle with rushing things and confidence issues. At the end of the day, so much of that stuff is in your head. Like, people who you think hate you don’t really hate you, and people who you think like you actually hate you. Plus, you gotta realize, nobody cares. Everybody is on their own trip and doing their own thing. Holding onto that baggage, it’s not really for other people—it’s just holding you down, you know?

I felt very ''seen'' when I was listening to the ''The Beauty of Breathing'' because I have also struggled with meditation in the same way you explain in the song. It used to be a very restoring practice for me, but recently, every time I try to concentrate on breathing, everything - my anxiety, my problems - flood into my mind. Have you seen found a better path to tranquility?

I’ve been reading. I’ve been trying to just read a little bit more. I feel like reading is a form of meditation to me, and I’m realizing this more now that I’m saying it out loud. ‘Cause I guess it is just something where my mind is distracted from whatever my mind should be distracted on, is focused on a different thing—and it feels enriching and it’s peaceful to sit and read. Reading in that mode is much easier for me than meditation in general. When I try to meditate, I sit down, tell myself to not think about anything; then as I’m telling myself that, I think about the thing I shouldn’t be thinking about. And at that point, it’s game over. I’d like to get to a place where it’s not like that. But that’s my experience—and for now, I think that that’s okay. I also think that people who’ve developed coping mechanisms like meditation really want other people to experience what they’ve experienced and try to push it onto others. But it’s important to realize that the path to “inner peace” isn’t the same for everybody. When it comes to mental health, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. I’ve found reading helpful—and when I have time on tour, I listen to a lot of ambient music at night or in the van when I’m trying to sleep. It just helps me get myself into a different space when my mind is annoying deciding to occupy that time. I’ve become drawn to ambient music over the last four or five years. I guess when I was producing records, it acts as a nice palette cleanser a little bit at the end of the day. I appreciated and still appreciate it, for its simplicity. It isn’t there to make some large statement. It’s just there to be there; it’s music that exists for a function, to create a space, a feeling, which I think is really unique and interesting. Sorry for talking about my habits for so fucking long. [laughs]

You touch upon this idea often in your music that man with a capital M is burdened with this notion of assuming a great purpose in life - and that's a lot of fucking pressure. Do you think people should get more comfortable with not having all the answers?

Jeff Rosenstock: I don’t know. I wouldn’t speak to how any other person approaches or should approach their life. Something I did early on in my life that was beneficial to me was trying to accept that whatever job I was going to have to make money to pay rent and pay bills and survive – didn’t have to be the thing that defined me as a person. I look at my jobs as learning experiences, but I didn’t really look at them as career moves. I’ve always had jobs that felt flexible so I could continue to pursue music. There were definitely moments where I felt like I was drifting a lot in my twenties, but I wasn’t really. I was actually acquiring useful skills, like learning how to be around people, which was really a big thing for me. I never have been a person who writes to like, fulfill some sort of greater purpose. I’m still just writing because I like to write. We all gotta eat though, you know, so there is always a push and pull thing going on.

I never have been a person who writes to like, fulfill some sort of greater purpose. I’m still just writing because I like to write.

A journalist that I really dig, Matt Tabibi, said in one of his books that “there is a utility in keeping us divided. As people, the more separate we are, the more politically impotent we become.” We live in a world where hate and, as you said, our empathy, is being weaponized. Where does music come into the equation of reestablishing that political/spiritual connectivity between people?

Jeff Rosenstock: I don’t know. Maybe it’s just something as simple as everybody can fucking… I don’t know… This is such an old reference. I feel like it’s kinda lame, but maybe this works: Everybody likes the song “Hey Ya!”. Everybody knows it, and it doesn’t matter. It’s just like this ubiquitous song that makes everybody happy, and it kind of connects us in a way that a conversation wouldn’t. I was like trying to think of a more recent song that everybody likes and couldn’t…so maybe that’s the problem! Maybe that’s why we are all so angry! [laughs] I dunno, what’s the new song?

Honestly, I'm not really sure! Maybe some song from Bruno Mars or Cardi B?

Jeff Rosenstock: Yeah. I feel like I’m so deep in the punk world that most of the stuff I listen to isn’t particularly ubiquitous. I mean, I think everybody’s like down “WAP,” but it was also quite a divisive song, so maybe that isn’t the best example. I don’t know. Um, yeah, I don’t know, I don’t know. Music is just such a weird cosmic thing. The appeal of a song like “Hey Ya!” is hard to explain. It’s hard to explain how it can bring people together, especially when we aren’t all in the same room together. The actions that we are having to take, because our government did not handle this pandemic in a brief way that helped anybody and allowed so many people to die, is that we don’t see each other and there isn’t that connection as often. It doesn’t even have to do with music or concerts anymore. It’s good to have any sort of positive connection at all these days, and I think people need to seek those out more, in a safe way of course.

Jeff Rosenstock © Christine Mackie
Jeff Rosenstock © Christine Mackie

I agree - the new physical barriers we've had to put up is a huge part of it. Those spaces, like a concert, where people can come together from different walks of life are gone for now, and it definitely takes its toll.

Jeff Rosenstock: Yeah, I think about house shows and how much I miss that feeling of being in a space with a bunch of people who you wouldn’t normally run into but share this one common goal with them, which is, I guess, to want to rock. I don’t know—that’s kind of a dumb way to say that. But I think that connection is really important. I believe that, beyond this pandemic, on a macro scale, we are all being driven away from each other, and that is done, in part, by certain social media apps and the media. I think it’s intentional. I think it makes people want to buy more products to increase their personal brand and make themselves feel very unique in a world where originality feels like it’s dying. Ultimately, it just divides us to the point where we all just feel completely fucked and bamboozled and can’t process anything. I don’t think we’re actually designed to take in a whole world’s worth of disturbing news while dealing with mundane problems and trying to find happiness on an everyday basis. The internet has definitely exacerbated that issue. We were talking about coping mechanisms earlier, but the real question is: How do you cope with the endless scroll of awful news going on? I don’t know. I recognize that I have a platform, and I have the opportunity to be able to speak to certain things. Hopefully…I don’t know….maybe it won’t do anything, but if someone else can find out about an important issue through me rambling on social media and actually want to do something about it, then that’s a good thing, right? Something along the lines of “Hey, do you realize that the prison system in America is actually legal slavery? And do you realize that the 13th amendment didn’t necessarily abolish slavery? And do you realize that the police are just beating people who are trying to stand up for equality and/or trying to fix the system?” Again, I don’t know if encouraging on my platform will work. I don’t know if it does anything. I don’t know if I’m just feeding into the negativity washing machine; but, at the same time, it’s a pretty fucking privileged ass place to be, like “If I just turn off the noise, then the problem goes away from me.” I don’t know the right answer to how to stay mentally healthy while trying to process an exponentially larger amount of information and fight for a better world. It’s been made abundantly fucking clear this year that they do not give a shit what about people like me think—so, at times, I don’t even know if I’m fucking doing anything productive, you know?

But I do believe that we need collective energy to have a revolution. That’s probably our biggest problem now. It starts within yourself, but I feel we also get so hung up on that. Sometimes we forget that other people can have slightly different points of view and still, collectively, be on the same side. All of us need each other because we are fighting against something much larger than ourselves. It’s easy to lost sight of that because everyone is so fucking angry about and distracted by dumb shit. So how does the revolution start? Who knows? But I am definitely surprised that, throughout this whole thing, we are just checking a box for somebody that we feel like we have to vote for. That’s kind of a common thing in most elections though. It’s not that much different from the past. As far as who the democratic choice is going to be like, you have to support them because the other choice is white supremacy, or denying climate change. Like, it’s not a fucking question. But then again, I don’t know. We’re all just talking with each other to try to figure it out. If I’m being honest, I get a little too fired up because I get so sad to see that we have a fucking white supremacist as our president who is not even veiling it anymore, and people are only concerned about which president will tax them more. Like, are you fucking bugging?

The DIY label is often attached to you. One can say that DIY is many things: an attitude, a feeling, a method, a style. But what does that term mean to you?

Jeff Rosenstock: It’s just a term like anything else. I like to create things. I like to make stuff. I like to help people out. I like to do stuff myself. I think that’s where I land on it. A good example is the Seth Meyers thing that we did where I edited and mixed the whole thing that was going to be on TV. I did that because I thought it was funny to have to do all that stuff myself. Or the first half of the first season of Craig of the Creek—I did that entirely on a laptop with a really cheap interface. In a sense, it was to prove a point that you could do it this way, and you don’t need to answer to somebody else or an $8 million budget or some other fancy-ass shit. You can edit and make your own things in a DIY fashion. You just have to be patient and not get too frustrated with yourself.

I really enjoy how, in many of your songs, you switch up styles so seamlessly at a second’s notice. Why do you often structure your songs this way?

Jeff Rosenstock: Nothing’s really intentional. I’m just trying to write songs that feel both interesting and catchy. I think that the changing up of styles, between songs or within the same song, reflects that I listen to a lot of different kinds of artists. It can get boring doing the same thing or listening to the same band over and over again. I like being surprised when I’m listening to stuff that’s pretty out there, the kind of music that makes my heart jump. When I try to replicate those sounds, it somehow works out for my music because, most of the time, the stuff I’m writing about chaos and experiencing it all at once. This is my personal experience, but I often feel the highs at the same time as the lows. But that’s for so many people. That’s just how life is. Some days, good things happen, and some days, bad things happen. And sometimes, it’s a mix of the two. That reality makes its way into the songs.  

When I try to replicate those sounds, it somehow works out for my music because, most of the time, I’m writing about chaos and experiencing it all at once.

I wrote an essay about your song Nausea in college, and I said, “If Jeff is telling us anything, it’s that there is one hopeful constant in our lives that we can always rely on, even when everything around us is collapsing onto itself: We live, die, and disappear altogether.” Which is to say that it doesn’t matter what we are, what we become, where we end up in life because death is the great equalizer. But that’s not a sad thing. That’s a form of liberation to accept the reality of death. Are there any overwhelming realities that you have come to accept and move beyond yourself recently to become more of who you want to be?

Jeff Rosenstock: No, I don’t think so. That’s a big question. I don’t know. I’m just trying to get through all this and come out the other end as a mentally healthy person. Like, you know what I mean? By trying to do that every day, I can be a better partner to my wife, be a better brother to my family members, be a better friend to my friends. I don’t feel like I am necessarily doing that a lot of the time, but I’m trying, and I’m trying to be aware of that. Hmmm, how do I put this? I think that there’s really not a lot we can do to change the way this world works, but if you could change things on a very small level, just by the way that you treat other people, just by being nice to the person you meet at a store or on the street or at the park or at the toll booth or fucking whatever, then that’s a big deal. I try to carry that with me, but I don’t know. I don’t fucking know if that’s real. I just think about it a lot.

Jeff Rosenstock © Christine Mackie
Jeff Rosenstock © Christine Mackie

I read this in a random comments section for one of your music videos: ''Scram! is also meant to be a song from the perspective of teenagers who’ve survived shootings and are trying to voice the need for change and being ignored and told to be silenced by the overall society, while still manifesting Jeff’s own anxiety in this same way.'' With that in mind, and in the wake of the BLM protests, what has given you a jolt of optimism in these tumultuous times?

Jeff Rosenstock: I mean, it’s hard to say. I don’t want to be like a fucking sour puss over here, but I’m not incredibly optimistic. That said, the things that have made me feel good to have been going to demonstrations, going to marches, and seeing people around me being angry about the same issues and just being like, “Okay, this is my team. This is who I’m fighting with.” That’s really been helpful. But then that shit gets tough. Despite those protests, they’re still going to let those cops walk every fucking time, and that’s an intense feeling. But knowing that others care about the same issues and the realization that you’re not alone is good. I’ve been trying to fundraise for good organizations and stuff like that recently. I have a friend who is involved in a mutual aid network in New York, which has been really inspiring. 

What is your biggest hope for 2020, 2021, and beyond?

Jeff Rosenstock: I want a lot of things: I want Donald Trump to not be our president. I want the white supremacists to shut the fuck up and stop feeling empowered. And if I get a third one, then I want to be able to play music again, with my band and travel around. That seems very selfish, but I miss that part of my life. I just want everybody to be okay, and I want everybody to have their version of that. That’s all.

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