Jeff Rosenstock Wants You To Fight Like Hell

The guy behind this year's best punk record gets real about post-election anxiety.

By Shawn Cooke Nov 29, 2016
Photo by Hiro Tanaka
Photo by Hiro Tanaka

Jeff Rosenstock wants to apologize for dwelling on the dark stuff. “Sorry this is such a bummer of a conversation. I keep spiraling into it because I’m still trying to make sense of it.” The specific issue Rosenstock is bummed about can change by the minute—election night, our country’s subsequent swell in harassment and intimidation, and the president-elect’s latest cabinet appointments have each filled in the blank at some point. There’s a thread of unbridled panic tying it all together.

It’s natural for our talk to assume this tone; after all, Rosenstock recently put out the year’s best album about feeling powerless. Last month’s WORRY., his third solo release since the dissolution of Bomb the Music Industry! in 2014, was originally meant to be a record about love. Newly married, the subject was at the forefront of his mind, but he ended up questioning how to love in a world that corners us with a barrage of targeted advertising, virulent message board trolls, and reports of new police killings by the week. You could call it A Loud Bash of Grown-Up Feelings.

Rosenstock is home in Brooklyn for the first time in three months, and has barely had a chance to recover from the biggest tour of his life, which included sold-out shows in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. Unpacked boxes and bags line the small hallway in front of his apartment, nearly blocking the door. His friend and tour photographer, Hiro Tanaka, hangs around the apartment in a WORRY. shirt, passing time before his flight to Milan for a photo festival. Rosenstock tells me that this is basically the first time he’s been able to reflect on the past few weeks, at home in relative peace and quiet.

He hasn’t had time to fully react to the election results, either. When the news broke, he was onstage with his band in Waterloo, Iowa. Rosenstock remembers the excitement in the room slowly waning throughout the night—everyone was still singing along and dancing, but he could tell something was off. He half-wondered if the crowd was thinking, “We’re in Iowa, and we’ve watched this dumb band play for 15 minutes, and I’m done now.” But he walked over to the merch table right after the show, and Christine, his wife and tour manager, confirmed what the audience already knew: Donald Trump would be our next president.

According to Rosenstock, some kid approached him later that night and offered an unsolicited reality check: “You have to accept that he won. This just happened. You can’t keep thinking about the ‘what if’—you’ve got to accept the reality.” Although they were far from comfortable with the reality, the bands on tour sought to make a difference the following night. Anika Pyle of openers Katie Ellen suggested that they collect donations at the door for Planned Parenthood before a free college show in Wisconsin. Their promoter told them it was illegal to do this in a state building, so they set up a donation-based protest button-maker. In each city, they would donate funds to a different local charity they deemed would take on a more important role during a Trump presidency (donations from their Brooklyn show went to the Ali Forney Center, a refuge for homeless LGBT youth in New York).

WORRY. was a revelation before the election; now, it sounds like something close to prophetic. None of his lyrics directly address the bitter race, but it works as a brilliant time capsule of the circumstances that led us here. During some of the first shows right after the election, Rosenstock also started hearing some of his own lyrics in a different light. “There were some lines that hurt a lot. Like the second verse of “Wave Goodnight to Me”: Yeah, ignorance is bliss until the day / the things you ignored all come into focus.”

Photo by Hiro Tanaka
Photo by Hiro Tanaka

To Be A Ghost...” is a dejected call to arms against the social media hatred that so often surrounds high-profile cases of police brutality. And yet in the song’s second verse, Rosenstock also takes hashtag activism to task, and wonders what good circling around online echo chambers really does in a time of crisis. Its side-B follow-up “...While You’re Alive” is equally shattering and vital, as he vows to let someone know he loves them while they’re here, rather than post-mortem—when everyone’s quick to give phony diatribes about how much they cared. The idea of eulogizing someone while they’re still around is powerful in any context. But in a time when so many female friends, queer friends, and friends of color feel like they matter less than last month, or that they have to accept crippling fear and unease as routine emotions, no song has packed a heavier punch.

WORRY. deliberately juggles so many ideas that seem to be in conflict: love and anxiety, joy and hopelessness, ska and indie rock. In 37 breathless minutes, Rosenstock makes the case that these poles don’t switch on and off, but often coexist in the same messy, contradictory moment. And that complicated ethos has also carried him through the weeks that have passed since the election.

“It’s not like your world stops. Even with Trump getting elected, your world is still going. Your family is still your family, the people you were friends with are still the people you were friends with. That doesn’t stop,” Rosenstock said. “Everything is just contextualized differently. It just amplifies the anxiety around the people you care about.”

******

It’s nearly an hour before Rosenstock takes the stage in Brooklyn, and some kids in front of me are getting down to a Radiohead song about the end of the world. “Ice age coming, ice age coming/ Throw it on the fire, throw it on the fire.” They’re not alone, either—most of Villain, the sparsely crowded warehouse, appears to be having a good enough time to the doomsday soundtrack. Despite what’s playing over the PA, everyone, at least outwardly, seems unperturbed by the news cycle. I spot one “Not My President” shirt, but still can’t tell if Rosenstock’s final stop of the WORRY. tour will be more about escapism or urgency.

Before Rosenstock or either opener—Katie Ellen and Hard Girls—come onstage, the house music zips through one politically minded track after the next: Killer Mike’s “Reagan,” “New Slaves,” “Fight the Power.” A few days later in his apartment, Rosenstock tells me that the thematic house music was no coincidence. In the green room before their Detroit show, Rosenstock and his openers threw together a playlist of 49 songs that captured a dose of their post-November 8 anxiety (the thing’s got “Fuck America,” “Fuck the Border,” and “Fuck tha Police” all in a row). “The vibe we were feeling was just, we all want to dance and run around and scream and be together, but we all need to keep in the back of our heads—there’s work to be done here,” he said.

By the time Rosenstock started playing, in front of a rainbow-streaked American flag with “666” where the stars usually go, there wasn’t much left to say—both openers had already set an urgent enough tone through stage banter. Early in the set, he saluted everyone who protested outside Trump Tower on election night, and said he wished he could have been out there. He told the audience to vote in local elections, and donate their time and money to organizations that will need it.

Photo by Hiro Tanaka
Photo by Hiro Tanaka

Even so, joy seemed to win out that night. As expected, you had a room of young punks losing their fucking minds, who knew most of the words to a barely month-old album. Throughout the night, I kept tabs on this kid with a broken arm in front of me, much closer to the stage. There was something oddly hopeful about watching him fling his cast up to the sky, before jumping headlong back into the pit, one song after the next. All night, you sensed that the downtrodden will keep turning to punk for solidarity, as they always have.

“The message they’re trying to send is that we can’t do anything,” said Rosenstock at one point between songs. “But fuck that—we’re all here.”

******

A few days after the show, Rosenstock tells me that the bands felt simultaneously obligated to acknowledge the political cyclone and offer a reprieve from it all. “None of us took for granted the fact that we made a lot of people happy in the last week. Specifically, for being able to get away from all the shit on Twitter and on the news and just being like, ‘Oh my god, everything I thought was a fucking lie,’” he says.

Regardless of what was going on outside the venue, that sense of hope was infectious at his Brooklyn show—but at home, he’s having trouble feeling it himself. When I ask the singer if he has become more hopeful since November 9, he says the opposite: “No. I think I’ve become less hopeful.” It’s the quickest Rosenstock’s reacted to any of my questions.

“I don’t like that,” he adds. “I’m trying to find ways to be more hopeful. I’m trying to find ways to be active against this, but I don’t know … I just don’t know what we’re gonna do.”

Rosenstock went to a pair of rallies the day before our meeting that didn’t help. The first was a well-attended rally at a Brooklyn park, named in honor of the late Beastie Boys rapper Adam Yauch, which had been vandalized with swastikas and pro-Trump graffiti. Rosenstock said the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz and Kathleen Hanna were also there, along with plenty of news cameras to capture the rally.

The second protest was the one that got him feeling down—it was a smaller gathering in Washington Square Park, that Rosenstock estimates only drew 60 or 70 people. “We might be fucked. People might have already—in the era of, ‘what’s the next trending topic’—have already moved on from this,” he says. “If I went to [the Adam Yauch] rally second, I’d probably feel a little differently.”

This is about where our conversation ended: in a fairly downbeat place, with Rosenstock musing through laughter, “Either way, we all die.” He’s still struggling to stay positive, without ignoring his surroundings. If I only remembered this, the last part of our talk, it might be easy to get swallowed by the pessimism. But as Rosenstock realized with the two rallies, the story’s in the sequencing.

A few minutes earlier, I had asked Rosenstock about “The Fuzz,” WORRY.’s bracing police brutality song that turns into a love song somewhere near the halfway point. Although it’s partly informed by scrolling through Twitter and feeling heartbroken for victims he’s never met, the track also draws inspiration from a personal crisis.

Last November, Rosenstock’s van was robbed in San Francisco. He and his bandmates lost instruments they’d been playing for more than a decade. All of their clothes from the tour were taken, including all that Rosenstock’s wife brought along. He describes an eight-hour ordeal at the police station, which left him in disbelief. “They just did not care that $20,000 of our stuff was stolen—they just did not give a flying fuck,” he told me. But as he looked around the station, Rosenstock noticed that they weren’t the only people who seemed to be neglected. “We were just seeing people be like, ‘OK, so guess I’ve got to go to work right now … guess I’ll come back tomorrow and try to file this report for assault.’”

He wrote most of “The Fuzz” the following night, and wanted his empathy to extend in all directions—to his wife, to victims of police brutality, and to people who couldn’t get their reports filed in a timely fashion. He describes his headspace at the time: “I’m so sorry that happened, and I’m so sorry that the people at the police precinct can’t file their fucking police reports for [assault], and I’m so sorry that police kill unarmed African Americans and they don’t get punished for it,” Rosenstock said. “And I wish there’s something I could do.”

Later that night, they were in a northern California Target, replacing socks, underwear, and t-shirts for the remainder of the tour, and ran into a teenager who was also at the San Francisco show. He stopped Rosenstock while shopping with his mom, and after chatting, the mother offered the band a $50 Target gift card. Later on, Rosenstock’s band would set up a GoFundMe with tempered expectations—and go on to raise over $19,000 in a single day. The streak of kindness helped to brighten his outlook, if only for a moment.

“It made me feel less like the world is totally fucked. Somebody robbed us because he lives in San Francisco, and San Francisco’s an expensive city that does not look out for their non-wealthy residents. I don’t forgive that person—they took my stuff, but what’s the point in getting afraid about everything over that?”