Jeff Rosenstock Wants To Keep Fighting

Jeff Rosenstock has always been a fighter. The American pop-punk legend has just returned with his new album, ‘HELLMODE’. Writer Reece Hooker caught up with Jeff to learn more about the creation of the album, including missing an encounter with a Beatle. Words by Reece Hooker

By Reece Hooker, 1/9/2023

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“Yeah! I overthink everything!”

American pop-punk auteur Jeff Rosenstock bellows at me over Zoom, his Cheshire cat grin widening. We’re talking about his pronunciation of ‘Melbourne’, but his retort may as well double as the tagline for his latest studio album, HELLMODE.

Jeff is calling Junkee from his home studio in Highland Park, Los Angeles, guitars and keyboards and cables splayed either side of him. He looks like he’s cocooned in a music school storeroom. When we speak, it’s the day before HELLMODE is unleashed on the world, and Jeff is convinced this will be the record that causes his devoted fanbase to turn on him.

“I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop and for them to be like, ‘okay, fuck this guy’,” he says. Not because this album does something shocking, he clarifies, this is just the mindset he has ahead of every album release. “It’s a really great point of view that I have that leads towards a positive, not-fatalistic life,” he deadpans.

Fear not, because HELLMODE will be another hit for Jeff Rosenstock, an artist who hasn’t missed once since his debut studio album We Cool? was released in 2015. HELLMODE is a rich sonic collage of his life over the past few years, gliding between acidic politically-charged barbs to intimate acoustic ballads to breezy pop-punk anxiety anthems, sometimes on the same track.

“I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop and for them to be like, ‘okay, fuck this guy’,” he says.

It will be the biggest album of his career to date: it was recorded in a lavish Hollywood studio and its tour will take him to some of the largest venues he’s played. It also comes out soon after he finished the score on his first film, an adaptation of the Cartoon Network series Craig of the Creek.

These heights were unimaginable for Jeff even 10 years ago, when he was fronting the pioneering punk collective Bomb The Music Industry!, a beloved group that revelled in its outsider status. But as each solo project drops, his profile grows. His 2016 LP WORRY and 2018’s POST– became a pair of critically adored treatises on America’s moral decay under the Trump presidency. Then, 2020’s NO DREAM dropped as the pandemic intensified.

Jeff Rosenstock: Highway To HELLMODE

HELLMODE came together at the start of 2022, after a COVID spike forced Jeff to postpone his tour, leaving him with some free time. He rented an Airbnb in Joshua Tree and headed to the desert with half a mind to play music. “I went out there to demo these songs but I was cool if it didn’t happen. I was also just trying to go out there to be kind to myself and try to give myself some space to work through some shit,” he says.

The demos turned out to be pretty good, and things moved “pretty quick after that”. His label Polyvinyl suggested he record the album at EastWest Studios in Hollywood, an idea he was sold on once he found out it was where System of a Down made Toxicity. “I haven’t recorded in a studio that’s had so much history and felt so much like music is a continuum,” he says.

Although Jeff, a self-professed music nerd, had plenty of exciting moments in the studio (standing where Neil Young recorded, seeing Angela Bassett), he bemoans missing his minute with a Beatle: “Somehow, in the chaos of me being like, ‘Do we have enough? Should the acoustic guitar be doubled or should it be one acoustic guitar in stereo?’ — you know, that stupid shit — I miss that Ringo Starr was just walking around, doing his thing.”

Jeff Rosenstock: Taking Stock

Recording at EastWest wasn’t just a chance to go stargazing, it also gave him and long-time producer Jack Shirley the tools to craft their most diverse-sounding record yet. HELLMODE is a technicolour maelstrom that features all the usual Jeff Rosenstock ingredients — anthemic rock, white hot fury and unflinching vulnerability — but it also delivers flecks of astonishing tenderness.

On ‘HEALMODE’, a sparkling ode to California rainfall, his voice wraps around the track like smoke and the gentle acoustic guitar is affecting. When I ask Jeff about the where the softness came from, he nurses a few theories: moving from New York to greener, spacious California (“probably very good for my brain”) and composing for Craig of the Creek (“I’ve at least tried to become a kinder person since working on that show”), but eventually settles on a pandemic-enforced break from touring.

HELLMODE is a technicolour maelstrom that features all the usual Jeff Rosenstock ingredients — anthemic rock, white hot fury and unflinching vulnerability — but it also delivers flecks of astonishing tenderness.

“There was sadness to that, for sure, but also, I was not in literal perpetual motion all the time,” he explains. “So, maybe that’s what lends itself to the space or tenderness or whatever that’s coming through.”

The album’s most moving moment of softness comes on its finale, a seven-minute epic called ‘3 SUMMERS’. It’s the longest song he has released, and perhaps his finest. It too was shaped during the pandemic, inspired by the July 2021 death of World/Inferno Friendship Society frontman Jack Terricloth, who was a formative influence on Jeff.

Reflecting upon Terricloth’s passing, Jeff meditated on his relative obscurity and whether it at all bothered his late hero. “I just hope he got what he wanted out of all this. I hope he felt satisfied. I hope that he died feeling good about how he’s changed people’s lives,” Jeff says.

“They’ve always been super underground, which is part of their charm, part of what marks them amazing. But it’s like, well shit, man. I wonder if it would have made him feel good to just get one little stamp of approval at some point.”

He spins the question back onto his own career in music, asking aloud: “Do I want something from this or do I just want to do it?” Elsewhere in the conversation, Jeff answers himself: “The reasons I’m doing it are not like, hey, I’m good at making music so I’m going to make it my career’,” he explains. “I am going to make music whether or not it’s my career, whether or not anybody cares.”

Jeff Rosenstock: Buying In Or Selling Out

The rollout of HELLMODE has felt celebratory, even if Jeff anxiously says it’s “very stressful”. It’s the first Jeff Rosenstock album fans have been able to anticipate, all the others have dropped without warning. His Bandcamp is a long scroll of creative merch, such as UV-reactive ink t-shirts, travel candles and a 666-piece puzzle.

It’s a far cry from Bomb The Music Industry!, whose anti-capitalist credo initially meant they wouldn’t sell merchandise. But even they softened on that stance. “I still feel conflicted about that stuff,” he admits. “Life is long. I think you try different shit, you’ve got to see what it’s like. I don’t want to have values because it’s a bit, or because I said I had those values when I was 21.”

He expects a few raised eyebrows for some lyrics on ‘LIFE ADMIN’, a jangly cut which opens with Jeff assessing his options to escape a mental spiral: “Might go to the desert/’Cause I make enough to/Fuck off to the desert” and “Got a new sweet pedal/And I don’t pay rent”. But he also felt compelled to be truthful: he’s had a “legit ass job” for a while and “it just would have felt dishonest to not address that,” he says. “I, in a small way, think I understand how I’m perceived by some and I thought it would be fucked up if I was still just like, ‘hey, I’m a struggling punk and like this and this’.”

Jeff Rosenstock: Speaking Up

Jeff’s advocacy has long been a defining feature of his artistry. On HELLMODE, few targets are spared: gun advocates, white supremacists, police, blockers of climate action and fascists are all savaged with his heady blend of indignant fury and pained exasperation. A New Yorker who lived in the city during 9/11, He pinpoints George W. Bush’s War on Terror as the genesis for his political bent.

“We’d all experienced a collective trauma,” he says about the terror attacks. “I was lucky, but I have friends who lost people and it was fucking crazy. I really felt a lot of positivity in New York for a couple of weeks after that. And then, to see that used as a way to justify a war with Iraq … that fucked me up, man.”

He links the feeling to one he had in the aftermath of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Jeff saw crowds tear-gassed, kettled and assaulted, and then nothing changed. “People kept gathering en masse and doing stuff, and what was the result? Higher police budgets here and nobody gives a fucking shit,” he says.

Don’t mistake Jeff for a defeated man. On the distortion-drenched ‘SOFT LIVING’, a sludgy call to arms, He implores listeners to “burn a police car” and wonders aloud how to “eradicate scumfuck white supremacist shitlords”. “I am trying to say, do not lose that fighting spirit. Don’t let them exhaust you,” he says. “You’ve got to not get exhausted with it because if you think a fucking politician in our oligarchy is going to do anything about it, you’re wrong.”

Jeff admits that, despite keeping the pressure on the scourges of society, he’s feeling the strain. On the jangly mid-’90s sounding ‘I WANNA BE WRONG’, he howls: “Cause I thought we could get better/But I’m starting to give up.” “That line in particular, I was a little worried about because like, I don’t want to put out a record that’s encouraging people to give up,” he says.

“I got to be fucking honest. Like, I feel bad, I feel exhausted and I’m starting to lose hope, but starting to lose hope is different than losing hope entirely. That’s the next one,” he jokes. “The next one, I’m recording in a wildfire because there’s no part of my state that’s not on fire.”

It’s gallows humour, a laugh and a wry smile. We talk about bushfires, in California and Victoria, and I sheepishly apologise for dragging the conversation into such heavy territory. He shakes his head, unrepentant. I get the sense this happens to him often. “I made the record,” he shrugs. “It’s my fucking fault.”

In talking about Victorian weather, Jeff opens up about his time in the state producing The Smith Street Band’s Throw Me In The River in 2014. “I feel very connected to Melbourne.” He reels off an impressive list of things he misses about the city: good food, Viet Rose, good laksa, Poison City Records, Coopers beer, Queen Victoria Market and boreks on Smith Street.

“I’ve been lucky to meet a lot of good eggs out there, the community was always very accepting and very nice to me. I appreciate that more than you could probably tell, because we don’t play Australia enough,” he says.

“There’s nothing concrete, but we’re going to try and get there in 2024. We want to hit everywhere on this record.”

Jeff Rosenstock’s new album HELLMODE is out now.

Reece Hooker is a Melbourne-based writer who can be found on Twitter and Instagram. More of Reece’s stories for Junkee here

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