Punk, rock, ska and indie fans the world over most likely know the name Jeff Rosenstock. As prolific a songwriter as they come, Rosenstock has been a darling in the indie scenes since his original breakthrough band Bomb the Music Industry! stole hearts with its eclectic yet anarchic sounds. Today, Rosenstock has been solo—though with an amazing band featuring a murderers row of members from bands like Shinobu, MU330 and The Chinkees—for a number of years and done some pretty dang notable things. These include releasing the jokey 2021 record SKA DREAM, a ska version of his 2020 banger record NO DREAM; composing music for the acclaimed cartoon Craig of the Creek; and playing a hand in the cessation of merch cuts (the practice where promoters and/or venues take a cut of musicians’ show-based shirt and record sales) at venues across the country, thanks to an excellent Instagram post in September questioning the practice
Rosenstock comes to Meow Wolf—a venue that dropped merch cuts last year, btw—this week hot on the heels of his newest record HELLMODE, an absolute stunner of insane indie/punk/rock proportions via Polyvinyl Records that showcases just about every musical reason the guy’s become such a force, from the fast-paced classic punk milieu to the lovely acoustic balladry of a songwriter who has matured while holding onto the youthful bits that kicked ass in the first place. Somehow we finagled a brief interview with Rosenstock ahead of his upcoming Santa Fe show (8 pm Monday, Nov. 27. $25. Meow Wolf, 1352 Rufina Circle, (505) 395-6369). Lucky us! This interview has been edited for concision and clarity. (Alex De Vore)
People are always like, ‘Oh, dude, Jeff Rosenstock is so prolific! How does he do that?’ So I guess my three-ish-pronged question is, can you even help but write songs—or would you want to—and is any part of it the musicians with which you surround yourself?
Can I even help it? Not really, to be honest with you. I’ve been asked about how I write a lot a handful of times, and no one has framed it like that. The long and short of it is that it’s something I’m doing anyway. For a really long time, when my bands were not really playing to that many people—or even when I first started writing in high school—it almost felt more like a bad habit. Like something I shouldn’t have been doing or that was distracting me from, I dunno, a future career or socializing or making friends. But I always had music rattling in my head, and the only relief was to try and catch that and turn it into songs. Then it was like, ‘I’m set free, I’m released!’ Honestly, it’s not as fast as when I was younger, but it’s still…it’s not much different when I write songs now: I’m distracted by something in my head, or if I pick up a guitar and start screwing around; if the riff or melody sticks around, then it keeps snowballing and turning into something. Now that it’s a good thing I write songs, I don’t want to overthink it.
And I wouldn’t want to stop. Now that it’s good, it feels like a strength, and a lot of that comes from doing [music for] Craig of the Creek. I have to write a ton of music and people are happy I write that kind of music and they don’t have to be like, ‘Uh-oh, that composer is bad!’ Now I feel grateful for it, but there have been points in my life where I’ve wished that, instead of whatever shit thing my brain is doing, I could pay attention to a conversation and retain information from certain books. But I guess it was mostly just school shit. Maybe it’s a weird thing, but when we’re in school you’re being taught the most import things are English, math, science and history to an extent, but I don’t know, you’re just…if you’re an English major...you’re still going out into a world of shit where no one wants to pay you for any of your work, and as soon as AI can do it AI is gonna do it. I was conditioned to think my kind of attachment to music was something I shouldn’t be doing. But I think that’s a good thing. I got to discover it and have fun with it as a passion instead of something I’d do as a carer.
As for people I play with? Yes and no. Playing with the people in my band is inspiring because when I write things and we start playing it together, it comes to life. I don’t think the songs I’m writing would sound the same. I think they would not be as good if different people were involved.
While I’m sure composing for Craig of the Creek is good for you overall, it’s not really music for you, like, for your records. Does it affect your other songwriting, though?
It’s cool! There’s a lot of good things about it. At first it was weird trying to adjust to not writing songs all the time. I feel like I’d write a cue, a short piece of music that underscored a moment in the show, and I’d think, ‘Oh, it doesn’t go to chorus or a bridge? It just stops? How the fuck do you do that?’ But there are so many things I really like about it. Our crew puts a lot of passion and love into it. I feel very honored…I kind of bring it home. I’m the last bit that gets added, and it’s a matter of trying to figure out how I contextually fit into it, and how I make the music and help bring it together instead of it being a distraction or not needing to be there.
The music on the show is super-intense all the time and it’s very collaborative. It’s cool to feel like what I’m trying to do is work with emotions somebody else is having and to use that rather than thinking ‘What do I want to write about today?’ That can be the hardest part as you get older and are writing songs. You start to think, ‘I’ve already said this, I’ve already said this—what needs to be said has been said.’ [With Craig of the Creek], I ride the wave through the peaks and valleys of emotion. And they let me do whatever I want, or at least they let me try. I get to experiment with lots of different kinds of music.
The quieter songs on HELLMODE probably wouldn’t have happened if at points in the show I hadn’t had to write quieter songs and find my voice there. There are things I’ve slowly grown more comfortable doing. It’s kind of encouraged me to want to write prettier things. It has also pushed me toward writing faster things and more punk things. If Craig had not happened I might have looked at expanding—how does it get more lush, more orchestral, even more slow down the pace a little bit—and I think Craig kind of showed me it’s not just that, but it’s re-inhabiting your youth in a way that feels fresh to you as an older person and keeping that energy up and fast-paced when it needs to be. The way music goes, it’s easy to trick yourself to think that being more mature means slower and more even-keeled. That’s some of it, but I think that’s some bullshit that boring rock critics say, too.
Let’s get the merch cut thing out there. The internet wants to act like it was Willie Nelson or something, but true punx know it was you, bro. Seriously, though, what does it feel like to have helped end something like that?
I don’t think I had a part in that at all. If I’m being honest with you, I talk to people in the biz because I play in a band and I’m booking shows, and there were rumors that [promotions and venues corporation] Live Nation was going to stop doing merch cuts all year, and we’re trying to not have merch cuts; and people people were like, “I hear this, I hear that,” but their doing that and Willie Nelson having a hand in that had nothing to do with me. I don’t know about the timing. I don’t know if that had something to do with it. It was kind of crazy, the timing, but that could also just be a coincidence.
I will say there is, and I can’t remember the name of it, which is great for me, a promoter group/concert agency—what the fuck do you call anything? Anyway, people who book shows in Connecticut stopped doing cuts and said it was specifically because of that post, and there were a few smaller promoters who did that because of it, and that was crazy. That’s a very good feeling and something we didn’t expect when we were sitting around the table that morning. We figure all the shit out together as a band. We all talk about this stuff, and it was, ‘Alright, I guess we’re going to say something, we’ll see how this goes.’
I didn’t expect to see so many changes happen so quickly after that. I wasn’t trying to make it a big thing, I was just trying to add a little transparency out there. You see bands play and their shit gets more expensive. Now they’re playing this big room, they can charge more money, and I’ve tried to not do that. It’s frustrating that as we try to meet demand, it becomes less possible for us to keep prices low for some reason. Merch cuts being part of it is fucking stupid. It’s justified robbery that’s getting bigger and bigger as people are saying less about it. But if people say nothing about it, this year it’s 20% and next year, it’s a 30% merch cut.