As a first year who had only heard stories about the Cavern, a hotbed of Exeter music fanaticism and host to lively club nights such as Indie Club and the Magic Hat Stand, it was a treat to walk through the doors and be greeted by the blaring punk guitar and vocals of support act, Doe. The band’s energy and precision was admirable, and their stellar musicianship shone through in their ability to pummel through some very loud and intense punk bangers while maintaining an impressive level of technicality. The three-piece were the perfect warm-up to the main event, Long Island-based punk singer Jeff Rosenstock.
The past few years have been something of a breakthrough for Rosenstock. The release of 2015’s We Cool? and last year’s Worry brought a significant amount of critical and commercial success, dragging the singer out of the underground scenes he’d been lurking in since the 2000s and into the popular alternative music spotlight. After hearing Worry and learning about this Cavern show, Jeff Rosenstock has been a name pedalling around the forefront of my musical consciousness for the past few months.
His live show was no departure in quality from his recorded material. It kicked off to an energetic start with Worry opener, “We Begged 2 Explode”. Rosenstock acted deceptively docile towards the start of the song, but by the end he was pogoing around the stage like he was trying to headbutt the ceiling, his band’s energy matching his manic enthusiasm. The set list progressed quite neatly from there on. With every song, the crowd got incrementally more energetic, starting with the odd awkward boogie to all-out crowd surfing and moshing that the whole room seemed to get involved with. By the end of the show, the whole crowd seemed to jump around as one insane mass. The crowd’s energy matched Rosenstock’s performance, as the set became gradually more amped up and sweat-coated. By the time the encore came, I was certain that I would recommend Rosenstock’s live show to anyone, and to have such an exciting garage-rock performance come to Exeter was quite the treat.
About a week before the show, I had the chance to interview Jeff. Here’s how it went…
So first of all, congratulations on Worry!
I’ve been thinking about Worry a lot, there are some clear themes surrounding immaturity, longing for something better, frustration etc. How close to home are these themes? Are they very personal to you?
They’re really close to home, I feel like I don’t have the ability to write a song if it’s not honest or not about stuff that I’m going through, you know?… It’s all just stuff that I was going through at the time… things that I was thinking about… just trying to sort it all out in my head and work it out by writing.
Would you say that what you write about is somehow a universally relatable theme?
Oh, I don’t know! I never really think about whether things are ‘universal’ when I write about them, I just write about it because it’s something I feel compelled to write about or to get off my chest. A lot of this record was supposed to be about getting married and love and stuff, partially because I’ve never written songs about that before. It’s never like an awareness of “ooh I’m gonna write this thing and it’ll be universal and everyone is gonna love me” you know? I mostly just write it and think “fuck I hope I don’t sound stupid”.
With regards to your music itself, Ska Punk is a genre of music that seems to be attached to you consistently since your Arrogant Sons of Bitches days, to what extent does that style still influence your song writing now that you’re a solo artist?
Yeah! Ska was everything for me when I was a teenager… a lot of those 90s ska punk bands were putting out arguably their best records, like Less Than Jake and Mighty Mighty Bosstones, bands like that. When I was a kid that was into music and I played saxophone, I didn’t have a thing to play on that instrument that wasn’t jazz or classical… Playing saxophone was really fun for me, so talking to people in other bands and playing ska music was basically my whole world at that time. As I got older, I started discovering new stuff but it was just as important to me as even when I wasn’t playing punk or ska or anything like that I wanted to keep that energy and keep that same feeling that I felt when I was a kid… Punk Ska was the bedrock of how I started getting into independent music.
Can you name a few of your favourite Ska records?
The Specials’ Self Titled record is awesome… Operation Ivy’s record is huge, those are two records that I still listen to a lot, I love them, the record Question the Answers by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones was the first time I heard music that didn’t conform to a specific style, a lot of what they did was ska punk and I was a hardcore kid so I was like, “oh shit, how is this person screaming on top of saxophones and stuff? This is cool”… Those three records are the big ones for me.
I saw in your ‘making of’ documentary that Worry is your first album “with a budget”. In what ways did this financial support alter your approach to recording and producing music?
Well when I signed with Side One (SideOneDummy) records I hoped they would say yes because I really wanted to put out a record with them! We talked about it, I was like “hey this is a big part of what I do, if you sign me I want to put out the records for free” and they were like, ok! I think they initially said no, then I said please, then they said ok… at that point we had already recorded We Cool? and put in the money ourselves, literally the only thing that changed for this record was that we went to that house (in upstate New York). As far as writing, it didn’t change anything.
People who are broke need art the most, I know I sure do
It’s well known that you release all your music for free. Do you have any core philosophy or big ideas behind that or is it more part of an impulsive desire to make your music as accessible as possible?
I would say it’s all of those but the last one is more what I cling to. Also, I started doing that when I was like 22 years old, I’m 34 now so that’s a long time, and when I started meeting people who found out about our music because it was free and were just like “yeah I can’t afford music so thank you so much for having it free” – this is pre-Spotify, Bandcamp etc. before a lot of people did that – and it meant a lot! And I wanted to keep doing that, I thought it’d be lame if I stopped doing that… every time we’ve moved up a little bit… I’ve always wanted to put it out for free. It doesn’t really affect sales or anything, it just makes everything better. I met this kid from Poland on this tour who said to me “I can’t afford a lot of stuff but I got your music” and it meant a lot to me… People who are broke need art the most, I know I sure do.
Do you think it could survive as a model?
I think it is but then again, I don’t know! I think when I started doing it early on before all that shit, I feel like I just fell ass-backwards into it, I never really thought about business models or whether it was lucrative or sustainable or anything, I just thought “hey I’m tired of having this financial barrier between people and my music”… so I don’t know! Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, anything could happen…
What’s your opinion on streaming? I know it’s a hot topic for a lot of people…
I do it, I have Spotify, but there is a big disparity between how much the artist makes and how much the record label makes… you don’t make a lot from streaming. But also, when I was a kid, I always heard that you don’t make money from your records you make money from touring, so there is the benefit that a lot of people get to hear your music because it’s on these things. It’s something I feel conflicted about because I do use it and my music is on there…
With regards to the music press, Exeposé included, what’s your opinion on reviews?
I’m a big fan of anybody who positively reviews my music! Criticism is weird, it’s hard to not take it personally when they’ve listened to it once, twice, three times and you’ve spent your life on it, some things kind of cut you down to size. I also wrote music reviews for magazines and stuff like that, they obviously were not all positive of course… guys like Anthony Fantano who do it in an interesting way, I think that’s cool because it gets people talking about music. A lot of people talk shit about Pitchfork, including me for a while, but I think it’s important to talk about music… if music criticism is the thing that starts conversation then sure, I’m fucking in! But only if it’s a positive review of my records…