Jeff Rosenstock is an anomaly. In the mid-2000s, long before Bandcamp and streaming services became standard, Rosenstock was heading up a revolutionary, amorphous punk collective called Bomb the Music Industry! (BTMI!). He sent free CDs to promoters around the country, booking full U.S. tours independently and giving away all the group’s music for free online.
This ethos of accessibility — presented in all-ages venues with tickets at $10 or less — set the underground music scene’s tone in the face of an impending industry shift. As the music industry leaned ever harder into artists with gimmicks and brands, Rosenstock managed to carve a successful career by just being himself.
For all intents and purposes, the Brooklyn-based Rosenstock is a refreshingly normal human being with hopes, dreams and fears. On his first proper solo full-length, We Cool?, Rosenstock explored everything from themes of mental illness to apprehensions about getting old. His latest release, Worry., presents the musings of a lifelong New Yorker with concerns about gentrification and police brutality.
“Festival Song,” a single from Worry., tackles the corporate-sponsored landscape of the music-festival industry that seems to expand each year. His anti-capitalist lyrics assailing “department store crust-punk-chic” and the cooptation of art for corporate profit sounds shockingly natural entwined with the power-pop hooks sustaining them.
Veering from his usual path, Rosenstock signed with SideOneDummy Records, but he stuck by his model of free digital releases. Luckily, SideOneDummy supported his desire to give away digital downloads of his release on his own donation-based record label, Quote Unquote Records.
“I knew I’d have a reach with SideOneDummy Records that I didn’t have on my own, so I wanted these lyrics to be punk as fuck, to reflect that same feeling that reading the lyrics of Operation Ivy gave me when I was a teenager,” says Rosenstock. “I guess I wanted to make teenage me proud,” he adds with a chuckle.
Although Rosenstock keeps in step with his earliest punk sensibilities, naturally some things have changed since his early 20s and the days of hustling free CDs at all-age spaces around the country. SideOneDummy takes care of the release and distribution of merch and physical copies of his music in order to give him more time to work on the music itself.
His longtime friend, Greg Horbal, helps book his tours, but he still maintains an email booking address specifically for small venues and amateur promoters. “I really like playing outside of cities, in suburbs, in a random town in Iowa or Montana,” he says.
And while he still loves touring, it’s a bit harder than it was when he started 15 years ago. “My body is not the same body it was touring as 20-year-old,” he says. “Two years passed between BTMI! and the first tours with Antarctigo Vespucci, and in that time my body forgot, I guess. When we started touring again, my body was not having it.” When asked how he keeps healthy now on long tours, he chuckles again, “I wouldn’t say I’m exactly healthy.”
Just like most Americans with New Year’s resolutions, he has high hopes of eating lots of leafy greens and trying to go for a run every day during his tour with the Menzingers and Rozwell Kid. But this has its challenges.
“When you’re on tour, your job starts in the evening and ends at 2 a.m. Most of your time is spent sitting still in a van, so it’s hard to jolt your body into being active besides the time you spend on stage putting your everything into a performance,” Rosenstock says.
At the moment, he’s between tours and keeping busy. “If I have a month off from touring, I’m fine for the first week, but after that I feel like I’m just sitting around doing nothing,” he says.
In the weeks leading up to this tour, he’s had his hands full with writing and recording new Antarctigo Vespucci music, producing albums, and putting out an amusing Lost-focused podcast called Back2theIsland with his Antarctigo Vespucci bandmate, Chris Farren.
The last time Rosenstock played Mr. Smalls, he was a vocalist, guitarist and saxophonist with Arrogant Sons of Bitches (ASOB), a high-energy ska band born in the mid-’90s. ASOB opened for Mustard Plug there in 2003.
“It’s one of the very few venues that I haven’t been back to in over a decade,” he says.
Rosenstock will return to Pittsburgh with his old friends the Menzingers, a band that BTMI! often discussed touring with but never had the chance to. “It’s awesome to come back, not only because our bands are doing really well right now, but because it’s building on the past,” he says. “People seem so eager to abandon the past, but it’s so special to build on it. It feels like a continuation of what we were doing in our 20s.”