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Jeff Rosenstock: DIY Isn't Dead. It's Just Changing

Jeff Rosenstock: DIY Isn't Dead. It's Just Changing
Polyvinyl Records
Jeff Rosenstock possesses the kind of creative self-awareness that comes from twenty years of making music that pushes his own boundaries and the boundaries of others.

From his early days playing in the six-piece ska band the Arrogant Sons of Bitches, founding his own label Quote Unquote Records, serving as the center of the DIY music collective Bomb the Music Industry!, to his more recent move to make music under his own name, Rosenstock is a self-made artist who's built a bridge between enraged, angst-ridden political catharsis and hard-hitting emotional introspection. His voice is loud, raspy and on the cusp of anger, but underneath that lies enough nuance and subtlety to make his music fun and arresting all at once.

Rosenstock spoke with Westword ahead of his July 9 concert at the Bluebird Theater. He spoke about his approach to crafting music, what inspired his angriest album yet, and the future of DIY.

Post is a very angry record," he says. "Usually when I’m writing, I try to poke around for bright spots, and when I was writing this one, there weren’t a lot of those to bring out. Some of this record was written, lyrically at least, when I retreated up to the mountains for a couple days after playing this protest show before the inauguration, seeing the Women’s March and seeing Trump say that a lot of people were at his inauguration and actually being there and saying, ‘Holy shit. No one’s here.'”

Politics wasn't the only thing that informed Post, though. It was also motivated by a change in Rosenstock's lifestyle brought about by his recent success.

“The anger [on Post] had a little bit to do with being in a new situation and being on tour a lot. Bomb the Music Industry! never stopped doing everything we were doing in our lives and just hit the road for a few years,” he says. “We were always working [on the side]. Touring all the time was definitely a life change for us — not necessarily a negative one, but it got me feeling a bit disconnected from myself.”

On Post, he wanted to change gears from the tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation and emotional introspection of his first two solo records. “After doing We Cool, I was just tired of talking about depression with people. I definitely haven’t said everything there is to say about it, but the challenge was that I’ve written a lot of records looking inward, and I started to wonder what would happen if I looked outward,” he says. “Seeing constant news stories about racist police murdering unarmed African-Americans and seeing them not held accountable in any way was the stuff that made me feel sick. It made me feel like I needed to write about it.”

Post is an album of climactic builds, big hooks and shout-along songs. Passionate riffs on politics are peppered with observations about Rosenstock's experiences with anxiety or depression.

“I didn’t write Post thinking, ‘People are gonna hear this shit and they’re gonna flip out because I’m talking about the president!’” he says. "It was just things I felt I needed to scream. That goes back to how other people feel about depression and anxiety. The general idea is that it’s very frustrating because you feel like you’re fighting a losing battle all the time, because it’s this chemical thing, and no matter how you feel rationally, sometimes you irrationally feel like a fucking crazy person. I think that [and political angst] come from the same place of just needing to blurt it all out.”

Despite his two decades honing his craft, Rosenstock still isn’t set in his ways. He tosses aside politics for Antarctigo Vespucci, his side project with Chris Farren, the former frontman of Naples, Florida-based band Fake Problems who also recently went solo.

The two just completed their second, currently unannounced LP, the followup to 2015’s emotionally arresting and irresistibly catchy Leavin’ la Vida Loca. The album was written and recorded around the same time that Rosenstock worked on Post.

Antarctigo Vespucci’s music is forthright and aggressively human energetic pop. The lyrics beg to be brooded to, but their delivery is danceable. This juxtaposition makes the band one of Rosenstock and Farren’s most accomplished and memorable projects.

With Antarctigo Vespucci, Rosenstock and Farren surrender to spontaneity and the urge to see an idea through, without necessarily knowing where it’s going.

“[Writing my solo material] involves a lot of woodshedding mentally, and Antarctigo Vespucci is a lot different,” Rosentock says. It’s really fun and spontaneous. ... We try everything, see what happens, and eventually end up with something we both really like. We’re both two jokesters — two little assholes — but [that band] is very much not a joke for us. When we’re done with records, we’re both like, ‘Shit, man, this fucking rocks!’”

Antarctigo Vespucci is brought into motion by Farren bringing songs — many of which are skeletal or early demos— to Rosenstock, and from there, the two develop them further. This often involves Rosenstock acting as the voice of reason or encouragement, bringing an idea along that Farren may not be intent on seeing through.

“The song ‘Losing My Mind’ [on our debut record] was one Chris clearly didn’t like [at first],” Rosenstock says. “It was originally called ‘I’m a Cockroach, Baby’, and I thought there were some really cool parts, and maybe all it needed was a good chorus. It’s my job in our relationship to tell him an idea is better than he thinks it is and that we should keep working on it.”

Considering his multiple musical projects, his production work for other bands (The Smith Street Band, Laura Stevenson, Mikey Erg), and the Cartoon Network show Craig of the Creek, which he’s currently writing the soundtrack for, Rosenstock is a long way from his days at the center of Bomb the Music Industry!. What used to be a form of catharsis in between part-time jobs has now become his living, and he speaks of this transition with gratitude.

“I always told myself that if things ever took off — it’s not like we’re the fucking Beatles, that we’d take our friends out [on tour] and the bands we believe in so we can keep it going for everybody. We had bands do that for us when they blew up, and now I wanna do the same since it happened for us,” he notes.

When asked about his DIY roots, he says that the scene is changing forms, becoming more hidden, and all it takes is for people to seek it out and make something new happen. That’s exactly what Rosenstock and his friends did with Bomb the Music Industry!

“I don’t think DIY is on decline,” he says. “I think it’s becoming harder to find, and show spaces are getting shut down, and that’s a real shame, but I think that everything comes in waves. If people are saying that, then they need to go out and do something. If you look at how hip-hop is happening, like Soundcloud rap being a big thing, that’s DIY and that’s huge, and that’s how shit is happening. Maybe punk DIY is kind of on the decline right now, and that just means people gotta step it up and make some cool shit on their own.”

Jeff Rosenstock, 8 p.m. July 9, Bluebird Theater,  3317 East Colfax Avenue, $15.
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Brody Coronelli discovered his love for writing and journalism as a teenager, and thousands of words later, that passion has come to frame his life. He writes about music and art for Westword, and enjoys obsessing about music and film, food and wine, creative writing, and making his own music when he's not too busy writing about it.
Contact: Brody Coronelli