Jeff Rosenstock Takes on All-Encompassing Violence in America with “NO DREAM”
Rosenstock discusses his new album through the lenses of the global pandemic and nationwide protest that have occurred since he wrote it.
In the months between when Jeff Rosenstock wrote his new album NO DREAM and when he recorded it, the world went into lockdown due to a global pandemic. Between when it was released and when my interview with him was scheduled, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Between when our interview was scheduled and when it occurred, the situation had escalated to violence by the police in nearly every major U.S. city, with plenty of cellphone footage documenting additional violence in smaller cities like Raleigh, Salt Lake City, and Erie, Pennsylvania.
Needless to say, the first five minutes of our talk this past Monday were uncomfortable. Jeff felt like the convo should be rescheduled for a later date when we’d had more time to process everything, while I told him I wasn’t really sure what else I was supposed to be doing to go about my work day, as if our peers weren’t currently being tear-gassed and shot at—unprovoked—in streets across the country, with the additional onus of navigating a newly announced initiative from the music industry to be totally silent the following day in solidarity with Floyd, his family, and the Black community.
“I’ve been trying to see what the music business’ response to this is gonna be—it’s pretty much a non-response,” Rosenstock laughs. “Pitchfork reposted, like, ‘JAY-Z talks about violence’ or something.” This skepticism is what I expected from the leader of a now-defunct ska-punk ensemble called Bomb the Music Industry!, which, like all his other projects, released their albums for free in defiance of the capitalist system the music industry feeds into. “I don’t really understand what [the blackout] is? Can you explain to me what the blackout is?”
I couldn’t. “I don’t think it’s particularly helpful for me to shit-talk how people protest, but it just seems kind of tonedeaf,” he shares. “I guess it’s coming from the right place in a way, but it also kind of seems like it’s marketing with a hashtag attached to it. Also, is it saying, like, ‘On Tuesday, that’s when we’re going to educate ourselves about this! And then every day after that and every day before that…business as usual. But Tuesday is when we’re gonna learn!’? That’s kind of what I got from it, which can’t be it. No one’s working on Tuesday, is that all it is?”
It’s Wednesday now, and the consensus seems to be that not only were we not alone in our confusion, but that it was as empty an initiative as we’d feared it would be. As he talks about it, though, his strokes get broader and broader, first calling out the “transparent marketing” of the music industry, then brands like Amazon making statements on racial justice (“even though they don’t support unions”), then companies like Facebook capitalizing on quarantine with “Stay home with Facebook” advertising—all of this in the same sentence. Acknowledging the blurred lines separating all these sources of anxiety seems to be Jeff’s approach to songwriter not only on NO DREAM, but as far back 2016’s WORRY!.
The jump from the anxious slacker-punk of 2015’s We Cool? to the more politically anxious WORRY!—which addresses the ever-present issue of police brutality among plenty of other social problems—felt a lot like the way myself and many of my white peers recognized their own (much smaller) platforms over the weekend, curbing our anxious-slacker tweets in favor of sharing others’ links to bail funds, petitions, and graphic cellphone footage of police violence. “I’ve not talked about it in as explicit terms as that, but yeah,” he agrees when I make the comparison. “Before I wrote We Cool? I was gonna record it at my house on my own and just put it out for free. It kind of expanded into another thing where it became the band in a studio. As we were doing a really short tour, SideOneDummy found us and we started putting out records with them, which is the first time I’ve ever had a big platform.”
As the first of a two-record deal with the label, Rosenstock followed We Cool? up with something a little more self-conscious. “When interviewers were saying, like, ‘Oh! So I can tell from listening to your records that you’re a fuckin’ depressed little freak’”—he trails off laughing—“I was just like, ‘I need to not write this record so much about myself.’ With that in mind, I was also just thinking, ‘This is the only time I know in my life that I’m going to be putting out a record that’s going to have this kind of push.’” Under the assumption that his band would get dropped (“because why the fuck would anyone sign our band?”) he rushed at the opportunity to “talk about Eric Garner, about Freddie Gray, about police in America having the authority to kill Black men who are unarmed without getting the punishment that a murderer should get.”
“It’s mentally taxing to keep hopping from one thing to the next thing to the next thing that are all really bad things that you would like to stop, to go down to city hall and go like ‘Hey! Stop doing all these terrible things!’”
After directly addressing this on WORRY! tracks like “The Fuzz,” 2018’s POST- was a step in the direction of the anxious place where concerns about police brutality, the faux-empathy of Amazon, and more frustrations coalesce into what Rosenstock calls “the all-encompassing violence” of America. Frustratingly enough, as soon as he specifically called out the violence of militarized immigration detention centers on NO DREAM’s title track, we’re back to police brutality. “It’s mentally taxing to keep hopping from one thing to the next thing to the next thing that are all really bad things that you would like to stop, to go down to city hall and go like ‘Hey! Stop doing all these terrible things!’” Jeff says. “It’s just a different one every day to the point where it’s a bit of a tactic—at a certain point you just don’t know what’s what, and you’re exhausted.”
This exhaustion hardly comes through in DREAM, nor in its predecessors, which are all packed with energetic punk numbers rallying against everything caustic we come across in our day-to-day lives—from Airbnb to systemic violence to anonymous online personas instigating conflict with the absolute worst takes—which, rolled together, forms that Rosenstockian conglomeration of stress. “Even in talking to you right now I feel like I’ve talked about, like, six different things and said nothing, and I think that’s their intent,” he says, referring to the ruling class, police state, and anyone else manufacturing our grim reality. “And that shit scares the fuckin’ shit out of me.
“I wonder if they’re letting this stuff happen so frequently so it becomes a blur, and people just can’t make heads or tails of it,” he continues. “Like they just got out of the fuckin’ Gravitron at the amusement park and got thrown into another Gravitron. People are fucking dying—all of this should be met with whatever force it takes to stop it.” We’re back to talking about looting, which we agree only seems to be more shocking to white folks than the murder of another Black man by police officers due to looting’s novelty. “If these protests continue the way they’ve been going, I wonder if in a week [the situation] will be like the pandemic—a subject that people trick themselves into thinking is OK and get used to.”
In speaking of COVID, Rosenstock is quick to dismiss the assumptions that his new record was written with a mid-pandemic mental state, as he’s already shared that he penned the album last fall. Yet lyrics like “You can give me an ultimatum with a loaded gun / I still can’t tell you what day of the week we’re on” resonate particularly hard coming off three months of increasing temporal delusion. Where many artists seem to be promoting their records as more-relevant-than-ever songs about the current state of things (despite being written months ago, in most cases) Jeff is, of course, anxious to think his record will get tied to this period of time. “I don’t want this to be a record that people feel like they can’t listen to when they’re out of quarantine or anything like that,” he says.
“If I’m lucky, it’ll make some people feel good, feel happy, or feel something, and if I’m not lucky it’ll just be a thing that doesn’t last—and that’s OK, I’ve made records like that before,” he continues, before lapsing back into the uncertainty that’s plagued our conversation. “I don’t know. That’s kind of a bleak way of looking at it, so. I don’t know. I think maybe now you can understand how this record was written out of quarantine.”
“I wonder if they’re letting this stuff happen so frequently so it becomes a blur, and people just can’t make heads or tails of it. Like they just got out of the fuckin’ Gravitron at the amusement park and got thrown into another Gravitron. People are fucking dying—all of this should be met with whatever force it takes to stop it.”
Optimistically anticipating a future where live music is a thing again, and society has acknowledged that we’ve progressed past the need for police, I ask Jeff about his band’s tendency to crowdsource the security work at their sets—an initiative he and peer groups like PUP, AJJ, and Joyce Manor began similarly enforcing at every show in recent years. “Sometimes you get bros who just wanna get drunk and slam around, and even that to an extent is fine—but it’s people who aren’t considerate of the people around them,” he clarifies. “Talking about it [on stage] at every show became something that was necessary because as we were playing bigger rooms and we’d be flying our fuckin’ pride/weed/666 flags and talking about our feelings on stage, I was just assuming people in our audience were all safe and we were all on the same page.”
After repeated reports from users on Twitter that audience members were being groped, Rosenstock and his band and crew agreed it was important that they make a statement at every show inviting the audience to call out that type of behavior in order to immediately eliminate it. “I guess the point is that everybody needs to be together,” he says, inadvertently looping the conversation back into the solidarity necessary for a successful protest. “It isn’t everybody that’s trying to be a bad person, it’s just one person. But it is a lot of people who are like, ‘I do not want to get in a confrontation right now. I don’t even know what’s going on.’ So it’s just trying to open it up to not let people do that, because it’s not gonna be a fight with just one person. It’s gonna be everybody fuckin’ pulling you out of the room.”
Jeff needs to go—he has another uncomfortable interview waiting for him. “Have…a good day? I don’t know.” FL