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‘All I want to do is make cool stuff, man!’: the chaotic DIY punk of Jeff Rosenstock

Feb 18, 2024

Don’t be deceived – the LA-based musician might seem like a carefree slacker on the surface, but underneath lies a tireless, super-prolific and critically acclaimed workhorse

Jeff Rosenstock has been tinkering all morning. The punk frontman sits alone in the cluttered makeshift studio in the basement of his Los Angeles home, hunched over his desk in sandals and an obnoxiously bright green tank top, his face glued to his computer monitor. There’s a neon sign on the wall behind him that reads: “It’s 420 Somewhere.” He replays the same 15 seconds of audio over and over, clicking his mouse around to fiddle with various levels and sounds, making imperceptibly tiny tweaks. Hours pass like this. Every once in a while he breaks the silence by grumbling “Fuck” or “Shit” under his breath.

Rosenstock’s new album, Hellmode, will be released in just a few weeks, but right now it’s his day job, scoring the music for the Emmy-nominated animated series Craig of the Creek, that’s keeping him busy. The show is getting adapted into a movie, and a draft is due by the end of the week. He has to hop on a conference call about it in a few minutes and has repeatedly warned that he is at his most stressed. “Fuck,” he mutters again. “Shit.”

None of this makes for a terribly sexy or exciting look at the life of a rock’n’roll singer, but it’s what Rosenstock spends most of his time doing. Longtime fans might be surprised to learn that he’s not skipping work on this sunny July afternoon to get day drunk somewhere. After all, in his 20s, he penned no shortage of party punk anthems with his beloved, now defunct band Bomb the Music Industry!, and the cover of one album featured a close-up photo of a friend shotgunning a beer. For years, fans perceived him as some sort of wild, bong-ripping animal. But although the now 40-year-old Rosenstock cultivates a carefree ragtag image, he backs it up with a tremendous amount of work. Underneath his slacker persona lies the real Jeff Rosenstock: a tireless and meticulous workhorse.

Before Rosenstock relocated to his more spacious Los Angeles home in early 2020, he crammed his quickly growing DIY operation into his tiny Brooklyn apartment, where the living room was encased with tall stacks of shipping boxes for his indie record label, Quote Unquote Records, which distributes releases by his long list of active and retired bands, such as the Arrogant Sons of Bitches, Antarctigo Vespucci and the aforementioned Bomb the Music Industry!. “It was intense but I’m from New York so I was used to the lack of space,” he laughs. “But then I started thinking: ‘Hmm, wouldn’t it be nice to not have to carry 9,000 records down three flights of stairs?’”

“Fuck,” he says again. “Shit.” His computer has crashed for the third time today. This seems like as good a time as any to sneak away for a quick lunch break. Over vegan tacos, Rosenstock tries to field questions about Hellmode, his fifth album as a solo artist, but is clearly distracted by the amount of work that awaits him back home. He typically holes himself up in his studio until 10pm each night, at which point he comes upstairs to be caught up on that day’s list of problems by his wife, Christine, who handles his tour bookings, merch orders and the thousand other tasks that come with being a hands-on musician with a cult following. “It’s a family operation, and none of this would get done without her,” he says. “When I’m being a baby or grumpy or overwhelmed, she knows what has to get done and makes sure it does.” Today’s issue is a looming UPS workers’ strike, which may end up displacing a huge shipment of T-shirts he’s expecting. Rosenstock shrugs. “Hmm,” he finally says. “Sounds bad!”

Hellmode is pure chaos, and an accurate representation of the inside of Rosenstock’s brain – a swirling tornado of manic thoughts that seems as if it’s going to unravel at any moment but somehow stays glued firmly together. His music feels like a game of Jenga in the seconds before the tower topples. “I like that,” he says of the Jenga analogy. “That’s how it feels to me. I want there to be moments on the record that make you say: ‘What?!’ But I also want there to be moments of calm, and to have everything fit together. To me, it’s my most solid record. But will people agree? Probably not.”

He has said something fatalistic like this in the weeks leading up to the release of every album he’s made, yet the opposite inevitably comes true. He is punk’s golden boy, seemingly incapable of landing a word of negative press. Even in 2018, when he surprise-released his third record, Post-, on New Year’s Day to avoid the fanfare of flashy album rollouts, he still hit No 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers albums chart and earned an enviable 8.2 rating at Pitchfork. The site also doled out an 8.0 to Ska Dream, a ska-based reimagining of his 2020 album No Dream, which he recorded “as an elaborate bit” for an April Fools’ joke.

Rosenstock is something of a music industry anomaly, in that he has done every single thing wrong by traditional standards but has still managed to cobble together a career that would make most of his peers jealous. For years, he has stubbornly clung to somewhat bygone punk rock ideals in the face of an increasingly corporate music scene – cheap ticket prices, all-ages shows, and a general adherence to egalitarianism and fairness. He was among the first artists to give away their songs at the dawn of music piracy – yes, even before Radiohead – and still makes all of his releases available free on his website. For a generation of music fans too young to have learned DIY ethics from Black Flag or Fugazi, Rosenstock has been an influential punk pioneer.

“I try not to think of it in those terms,” Rosenstock says. “It’s really cool if what we’re doing makes people realise that they can do it too. That makes me feel nice for a second, and I get a gold star, and then I move on. You can’t live your life thinking you’re important because you’re influencing people.”

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It’s not just the ethos of punk for which Rosenstock carries the torch; his music proudly borrows from the sonics he grew up on in the late 90s and early 2000s – pop-punk and ska styles that were largely dismissed by the critics and tastemakers of the time. Spotify, of which Rosenstock has been publicly critical, features a photo of him on the cover of its 350,000-listener-strong Essential Ska playlist, making him the de facto face of the genre. Rosenstock is, as ever, dismissive about all of this – humble to near frustrating levels. “All I want to do is make cool stuff, man!” he insists.

On the drive back to his house after lunch, Rosenstock stares out of the passenger window as the Los Angeles scenery whizzes by. His mind is somewhere else, lost among the thousands of problems that still need attention today. “Thanks for lunch,” he says, closing the car door. “OK, back to work!”

Hellmode is out now.

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