It Takes A Worried Man: A Q&A with Jeff Rosenstock

Photo by Andy Johnson

On his newest album, Worry., Jeff Rosenstock faces his anxieties head on. Navigating cultural malaise, police brutality, gentrification and true love, and featuring 17 relentlessly catchy, sonically diverse tracks, the former Bomb The Music Industry! frontman’s third solo outing is his most ambitious yet. Rosenstock chatted with American Songwriter about the making of the record, politics in punk rock, his love for ELO and more.

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So you rented a house on the beach in California to record this record?

It’s a place called the Panoramic House and I saw an ad for it in Tape Op. It’s a recording studio that’s in this beautiful house overlooking the beach in Stinson Beach, California. We knew we wanted to record with Jack (Shirley) again but I kind of wanted to do something a little different. And it wasn’t too crazy expensive so we lived at that house for a week and made most of the record and then I did the vocals back at Jack’s studio in east Palo Alto.

Did you guys have the songs mostly worked out when you got there or did you work on the arrangements in the studio?

It was already worked out. With every record that I’ve done since the first Bomb The Music Industry! Record, I’ve recorded them all in an apartment with drum machines and synthesizers and stuff to work out the arrangements. I hear stuff in my head and I want to get it down and hear it out to make sure that it all sounds good; so I’m not fucking around in the studio trying to find the perfect part at the last second. When we go in we have a game plan and I just have a crazy list of all the instruments that have to get recorded for whatever song it is. There’s stuff on the record that Mike (Huguenor) did where that’s the only time he ever did that on guitar, and it was like “Alright! Cool! That’s in there!’ Guitars, bass and drums were recorded live with us just playing in a room, no headphones on, amps out, just playing in the room with each other. That let’s us play off of each other and feel it out. And if there’s a take that doesn’t have the right energy, just get rid of it and do it again. It’s not like a million more people have to do a million more multitracks or overdubs.

The song has a lot of short songs in succession what inspired that?

The last bunch of songs on the record were not unfinished demos, but they were songs that I didn’t love where they were going. It seemed like they were too long, or had too much stuff going on. Or it sounded too predictable or too much like things that I know I do all the time; things I’m doing out of habit.I talked to a friend at a New Year’s party and he was like “if you’re having trouble with the songs why don’t you try just smashing them all together and see if it work.” And the second he said that I was like “oh, I know exactly which songs, how’s it gonna work” — it all just kind of clicked.

On “To Be A Ghost…” you talk about police brutality, which hasn’t made it’s way into a lot of rock songs.

Isn’t that crazy?

Do you think it’s important for songwriters to look outward and engage society with their songs?

I don’t think it’s important for anybody to — I think what punk is about is just about doing what you want. So when people say music should be political or that politics should be kept out of music it’s like “fuck you.” I think people should write the songs they want to write. But that said, it is kind of insane to me that I’ve talked to a handful of people about what we’re talking about now since this record has come out and that there is not a lot of talk about this kind of stuff on records coming out right now. I wrote about in such an obtuse, me-me-me way. I just wrote about the stuff that is freaking me out, mostly because I’m not smart enough to be in a political hardcore band. I don’t know enough unequivocally say “these things are true, fuck all this stuff.”

Why did you choose a gentle song to deploy a harsh truth?

I’m not sure. I had the melody. The lyrics on this record were challenging for me. We Cool?, the last record came out. And it got more press coverage than any of the that stuff Bomb had done. So people had talked to me a lot about it and it made me aware that I didn’t want to write about the same things that I wrote about on We Cool?, or at least not in the same way. So I kind of got stuck on lyrics and ended up writing a lot of melodies. For a while that song was just called “Ghost.” I knew I like the “they want you to be a ghost” line. So I had that in my head and I’d demoed guitar and melody and some stuff to it. And I heard about the riots in Baltimore after Freddie Gray was thrown into a van and left to die. And I remember reading about those riots and how the mayor had responded in a way that was like “we are going to make these officers actually go to trial.” And it made me think about riots and how people talk about riots negatively. And sure, people get hurt and businesses get destroyed and all that stuff. But when you have people and you won’t listen to them unless they burn the fucking city down. One, that makes rioting necessary unfortunately. And two, that’s just a terrifying thing that the only way to get perk up is to do something like that. So I was thinking about that and words started coming to me. And then from there I thought the middle section lended itself nicely to that terror I feel when I think about the future. A future where the only way people will listen to other people is through violence, which is terrifying to me.

One theme I hear on the record is the determination to remain hopeful despite the hopelessness that surrounds you, which is perhaps best summed up in the final stanza of “Blast Damage Days”.

The thing about “Blast Damage Days” is — remember how I said I was going into this record trying to write something a little different? I got married in the middle of my newest record and I wanted to try and write a record about love that didn’t sound corny and cheesy. And eventually I started getting inspired by things like gentrification, or fear of being evicted from my own house, or Death By Audio closing, or police brutality, or getting robbed, all these kind of negative things. And the way that I was approaching it is at the end of the day love is still at the core of everything. Having human relationships is still the core of everything. And it’s still there even if all the stuff surrounding it is shit, it’s still there. And sometimes it’s hard to fight for it to remain, to keep it alive in spite of your surrounding. That’s how the record ended up when it was done. Tried to write a nice little record and it ended up being about violence and greed and stuff. But it all exists at the same time. You don’t experience love without experiencing hate and terror around you and vice versa.

Why did you name the record Worry.?

I had different album titles. I didn’t really like them. I forget where I was when I thought of it but I renamed the demos in my iTunes and then every time I saw them there I was like “that works, for this record that makes sense.” I think “worry” as a noun encapsulated how a lot of us are feeling about life right now, especially in America. But also it’s the thing you have for somebody you love and you’re concerned and just want them to be okay. I think it ended up good because it speaks to both of those things. But also I feel like — if I’m being honest — I feel like I’m realizing that after the fact, and I have no fucking idea when I thought of the album name.

Who are some of your favorite songwriters? Contemporary and all-time.

I’d say contemporary I feel pretty lucky to be friends with a lot of my favorite songwriter right now. I think Laura Stevenson write amazing songs. I think her lyrics are totally brilliant and unlike anybody else’s lyrics. Really dark and really sad but it sounds so beautiful and power and sweet coming from her voice. The way she sing with so much emotion, there’s a lot going on there. Laura kicks ass. This guy, Owen Evans, from the band Roar, he also has the same thing, dark lyrics but beautiful songwriting. I love Steve from The Sidekicks. Really good smart lyrics with catchy pop songs. Hop Along, Frances Quinlan, those records are so good. She’s the best; so good, so unique. P.O.S. I really like his new shit. I like that he keeps growing with every record and that every record has a different sound. He put out an eight minute rap song about his kidney dialysis, it’s super intense. Those are people that I think are doing awesome stuff right now. Oh, the new Angel Olsen record is insane. And that last Fiona Apple record — I know she make a record like every 50 years — but that last record still kills me.

And old stuff, The Clash, because they were so open to taking risks. To me that makes them feel like the punkest band off all-time. They wouldn’t adhere to any formula and I find that really inspiring. I really like ELO a lot. I think that the stretch of records between El Dorado and Discovery are just completely perfect. Brian Wilson, of course, Pet Sounds is probably the most affecting record I’ve ever heard in my life. It pulls me out of dark times and stuff. I really like Paul Westerberg, of course, and Bruce Springsteen, of course. That first Cyndi Lauper record, I love that record it’s a perfect pop record. I really like a lot of Madonna’s stuff. So that’s a good batch. I could list a million things for a million hours but you would get bored with that. I also think Deerhoof kicks ass. Deerhoof is like one of my favorite fuckin’ bands.

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