Q&A: Jeff Rosenstock On How Weird It Was To Be Playing The Pitchfork Festival
“Seventy-five hundred! Dollars! For us! To play! This festival!” That was Long Island pop-punk hero Jeff Rosenstock, from the stage, at this past weekend’s Pitchfork Music Festival. Last year, the former Bomb The Music Industry! frontman released WORRY., an ambitious and eloquent album about growing up broke in a time when money dominates everything. One of its best songs is “Festival Song,” about performing at a festival, feeling weird about looking around and seeing corporate-sponsorship stuff everywhere: “In the shadow of a bank-sponsored skyline / ‘Unite against the establishment!’ / While drones transmit the images / To a server farm in the valley / For a culture that will eat its own insides.”
But when I found him the day before he performed at Pitchfork, Rosenstock told me that he’d never even been to a proper music festival, at least not the kind where people lay out on blankets on the grass. (When I told him that all the beer in the VIP section was free, his eyes got all big, like he’d just learned that it was his birthday.) Pitchfork isn’t huge, as festivals go. And even at a smaller festival, $7500 is chump change. But Pitchfork is still a long way away from the basements where Rosenstock started out — and where he still often plays today.
Rosenstock’s set, played early on Saturday afternoon, is already the stuff of legend. He and his band came onstage to the sounds of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Red Hot Chili Peppers parody about The Flintstones. They got the crowd to do the wave, multiple times, in weirdly varying patterns. They made constant reference to how weird it was that they were even there: “Sincere shoutout to the person at Pitchfork who got fired for letting us play this festival!” Rosenstock used his guitar to knock an inflatable Donald Trump out into the audience, who then proceeded to rip it into pieces. They played the whole thing like it was a private joke that they were sharing with all of their friends, and treated everyone in the crowd like they were their friends.
The joke of the show was about how Rosenstock and his bandmates didn’t belong at Pitchfork. And while their yawpy pop-punk was the sort of thing that rarely gets booked at a festival so concerned with cutting-edge cool, they absolutely belonged. Rosenstock’s hooks are huge, and he and his bandmates have more than enough joyous charisma to fill a stage that big. Their set felt like a moment, and not too many of their more-famous peers at the festival could claim the same. There was magic in their self-conscious frenzy. More festivals should book them — if, that is, they want more festivals to book them.
The day before Rosenstock played, I talked to him in the festival’s press area. We had a fun conversation. Here it is.
STEREOGUM: I wanted to ask you about “Festival Song.” As somebody who goes to festivals, a lot of the time I know the feeling of that song: “Why I am here?” I don’t know how many of these things you play…
ROSENSTOCK: Not many. We play a thing called the Fest in Gainesville a lot, where a lot of it is just small punk bands from local scenes. They all just play this one thing every year, and everybody comes out. It’s pretty fun. But other than that, we don’t play a lot of these.
STEREOGUM: I want to go someday.
ROSENSTOCK: It’s wild. Superchunk is playing this year. That’s neat. We’re not playing, so I won’t be there, but I know Superchunk is playing this year.
STEREOGUM: Superchunk played here [at Pitchfork] when they first got back together.
ROSENSTOCK: Majesty Shredding! How good is that fucking record? What business does Superchunk have getting back together and making their best record?
STEREOGUM: That might be their best one.
ROSENSTOCK: I’ve thought about it. Obviously, you’re not like, “Oh yeah! The later record! That’s what I would go to.” But it’s the one I always put on. The whole thing through is great! They kinda just make great records, so it’s hard to say, but Majesty Shredding is really fucking good.
STEREOGUM: You’re playing a festival now, obviously. I would say it’s one of the better ones, but how do you feel about doing a song like that at a festival like this? Is that weird?
ROSENSTOCK: No! I think it’s fun. I don’t know. I’m sure you can imagine I’ve been asked this a handful of times, and I don’t have an answer. It doesn’t seem weird to me at all.
In writing WORRY., it’s the first record that I knew was going to come out on a label. So my mindset was basically: “All right, what’s all the fucking basement punk shit I want to say to a larger group of people?” Especially at a time where punk is not talking about things that I kind of grew up with, like Operation Ivy lyrics — anxiety, sure, but also economic shit that’s fucked up. The things that cause the anxiety from the outside world. I didn’t feel like a lot of punk was doing that. I was just like, “I gotta have a bit of a platform here. I just want to try and dive into that stuff and see if it’s any good.”
With a thing like “Festival Song” playing at a festival, I think it’s maybe the only appropriate place to say it — to be like, “They’re not your buddy! They’re just trying to sell you Vitamin Water right now.” When you’re walking around, scrolling through fucking Instagram, and it’s so focused, so targeted at you, you’re like, “Shit, man, I do think this! I do think that sleeping mat looks really good, and it only costs $40? But no, I can’t buy it! They’re not looking out for me.” Honestly I don’t feel weird about it all. I think it’s an appropriate thing to play at a thing like this.
STEREOGUM: Have you done SXSW before?
ROSENSTOCK: Kind of. Bomb The Music Industry! did SXSW, but we played no sanctioned shows. We did two or three all-ages shows that were all free, and one was a breakfast show in a bookstore that happened at like 11AM. It was cool. I saw Fucked Up, missed Boris, and saw Black Lips like three times because that was the year that Good Bad Not Evil came out. They were everywhere, and I lived in Athens at the time. I was like, “Yeah, go Georgia!”
STEREOGUM: I used to go every year. Then I stopped going three or four years ago. It was for a lot of reasons, but I remember the sensation of sitting in the airport when it was over and being like, “Nobody is aggressively marketing anything to me right now.”
ROSENSTOCK: “Finally, I’m away from commerce in an airport.” [Laughs] Yeah. This one seems like it’s not really like that too much. But to be fair, I don’t think I’ve been out in the actual area, so maybe I’m wrong.
STEREOGUM: Are you going to? Are you going to festival it up?
ROSENSTOCK: Yeah! I mean, I’m going to eat free food and drink free beer, which is pretty sick. I have a nice bathroom I can shit in. But yeah, I’m stoked, man. That’s a big part of why we’re playing. I don’t know when I would be able to afford or able or have the time to see Danny Brown, Angel Olsen, Mitski, fucking Tribe Called Quest. There’s a lot of stuff that I am just really excited to see this weekend. The Avalanches. I didn’t think the Avalanches would ever put out that record, and now they’re playing a thing that I am playing that I get to go to for free.
STEREOGUM: I used to work at Pitchfork, and one of the reasons I keep coming back to this festival is that they treat writers really nice. Not every place does.
ROSENSTOCK: They didn’t treat me bad or anything, but I used to write record reviews for Alternative Press. Then at some point, I started writing with a fake name because I was just like, “This is gonna start getting weird.”
STEREOGUM: What was your fake name?
ROSENSTOCK: Luke Jackson. So you can go back and find some Luke Jackson. Jackson’s my nephew’s name, and Luke is my first name if you take an interview survey called What Is My First Name? Apparently, it’s Luke.
STEREOGUM: How would they figure that out?
ROSENSTOCK: You know, they ask you questions, like “What’s your favorite color?” “What kind of food would you prefer?” Then they say your name is Luke. I was hoping for more when I took it, to be quite honest.
STEREOGUM: You were hoping they would give you, like, Aloicious?
ROSENSTOCK: No, I was just hoping for some really deep questions.
STEREOGUM: Like, “What is your first name?”
ROSENSTOCK: Yeah, and then it just spits back out: “Your name is Jeff. Go to another website.”
STEREOGUM: Are you doing heavy touring right now?
ROSENSTOCK: Yeah, we’re in the middle of a five-week tour, which is after like a month and change in Europe, which is three weeks after like six weeks in the US. We did a big tour in November, and we’re doing Australia after this one. Then we’re chilling out. We’re, like, doing the thing. It’s funny.
STEREOGUM: Funny how?
ROSENSTOCK: It’s just funny to be in the middle of it. We’re all in our fucking 30s. My last band was very specifically like, “OK, let’s tour for three weeks and then hang out at home for five months and work and make money so we don’t have to worry about being in a band or anything.” So it’s interesting to be like, “All right, let’s fucking get in the van and see what it’s like when you actually do the band thing.”
STEREOGUM: I’m pretty good friends with Damian Abraham from Fucked Up, and he has been very forthright about the idea that playing festivals like this is how he gets to still be in a band. You play bunch of these and then you get paid and then you just go do whatever. He’s got a bunch of stuff going on, but he told me that a few years ago. Does that speak to you at all?
ROSENSTOCK: No. Not really. I love Fucked Up, though! There’s no doubt that, like, when Pitchfork told us what they were offering us, we were all in the group text, and we were just like “HAHAHAHAHA!” Like, it’s more than we’ve ever gotten paid for anything. I’m always forever the kid where it’s in my heart that I can’t go to that show. I couldn’t afford to go to that show right now. So for me, it’s important to play small shit and shit that is at ticket prices and all-ages and stuff like that. Not do stuff that’s at ticket prices — that sentence doesn’t make any sense. But we’re doing a Beat Kitchen show at the same time as this. So when we got booked on this, me and Greg, my buddy who’s also a booking agent, we talked about that. We’re like, “OK, let’s do this, but how could we do a small club show for people who like us but can’t really afford the $75 to go see all these bands?”
STEREOGUM: Fucked Up did the same thing when they were here.
ROSENSTOCK: Then yeah, I am on the same page. Sick for them. That makes sense. They play a lot. We don’t play a lot of festivals, so I don’t even know if we’re doing it right yet. I’ve seen Fucked Up at festivals, and they’re sick. They’re good. They’re just a good-ass band. They know what they’re doing.
STEREOGUM: Are you nervous about playing?
ROSENSTOCK: Yes and no. I know that we’re just going to do what we’re gonna do. I’d like to be good. I don’t really know. We played this thing called Northside Fest a month or so ago. It was just one of those things: “All right how was that? Were we good? We don’t do this stuff very often, how was it?” “Yeah, it was good.” But also there’s fun in the chaos. How do we make the chaos feel like the good chaos instead of making it feel like the bad none of our cables work and we don’t know how to play our songs chaos that is also inherently a part of the same thing?
STEREOGUM: I want to make sure I got this story straight: You had your van broken into and a whole album’s worth of stuff stolen?
ROSENSTOCK: Van got broken into. Most of our equipment got stolen, and all of our clothes got stolen. Then, when I was out in San Francisco for Asian Man Records Fest, our rental car got broken into. My backpack that had a digital recorder with a bunch of ideas for songs and a lyric book that had kind of the vibe in it, that all got stolen. There’s only one song that got demoed before that, which was the one that I put out. The rest was just they’re either not songs or they’ve morphed into things based on what I could remember, which is fine. It’s a bummer. I’m more bummed that I had a digital recorder. On the digital recorder I had gone to Japan and we were staying in this hotel. I was playing bass in this band called Skankin’ Pickle. This band Kemuri took us on tour, and they just like treated us…
STEREOGUM: Wait, you were in [’90s ska-punk band] Skankin’ Pickle?
ROSENSTOCK: I was filling in on bass in Skankin’ Pickle.
STEREOGUM: I didn’t know Skankin’ Pickle was still around.
ROSENSTOCK: It was only these three shows in Japan. Kemuri are so tight with Mike Park; they were like, “Yeah, bring out Skankin’ Pickle.” People were freaking out about it. I was like, “This rocks!” Because I grew up with Skankin’ Pickle. We each had our own hotel rooms. They had satellite Japanese radio in the beds. I was just listening to ‘60s and ‘70s J-pop, fucking Japanese versions of the Beach Boys and ELO, shit that I loved. I laughed and just set my digital recorder for two and a half hours. And now that’s just all gone. I bet they threw it away or wiped the SD card and now it’s all gone.
STEREOGUM: Or maybe there are thieves who are really getting into ‘60s J-pop.
ROSENSTOCK: Yeah, there’s gonna be some sketchy mixtape on the street now. Maybe it’s the next thing. The area is pretty cool — Silicon Valley. There’s gonna be a tech start-up for the new app of Japanese satellite radio. But I’m bummed. I don’t know those songs. I know them enough to hopefully remember enough of the good parts and do something with them.
STEREOGUM: That sucks. I’m sorry.
ROSENSTOCK: You think that sucks? We were doing gang vocals for WORRY. We did them at a record store with 100 people, and our drummer came out. His car got broken into. His passport and computer got stolen.
STEREOGUM: How come y’all keep leaving stuff in your cars?
ROSENSTOCK: You go through levels of it. I parked somewhere and it’s 8 o’clock in the evening and it’s outside a restaurant next to where people are eating. My bag that is buried underneath stuff is not going to get stolen because at some point these people observing this smash-and-grab will be like, “Hey, don’t!” But not in San Francisco. Not in Oakland. But you’re right. Don’t leave stuff in your cars. So the next time we played San Francisco, Dan Pothouse, our auxiliary guy, his wife came up in their car. She didn’t bring anything in it, so her car got stolen.
ROSENSTOCK: So now we’re paying extra for somebody to just stand there and watch our things when we’re in San Francisco. To just stand at the van.
STEREOGUM: This is all in San Francisco?
ROSENSTOCK: Yeah, they don’t care there. The cops don’t fucking care. In most of America, this is also not good, but 14% of smash-and-grab car thieves get caught. In San Francisco, it’s 4%. Per capita, it’s by far the worst. When we filed our police report, it took eight hours. The only contact I have with police after that was them calling me to see if I was lying. They didn’t try and find my stuff. We parked on a well-lit street under a fucking street light with a camera on a fucking busy street. They’re like, “Ah yeah, we don’t know.”
That ended up being more of the heartbreaking part of it. Yeah, my guitar that I’ve had forever is gone now, but whatever, can’t take it with you. Just knowing that that’s how the system works for people — being at the police precinct and seeing other people who have gotten their cars stolen and just the shit kicked out of them on the street just standing there, being like, “OK, I’ve been here for six hours, I guess I have to go to work now because I can’t afford to lose money because I have to pay for this car. I guess I’ll come back tomorrow.” They’re like, “Yeah, yeah, come back tomorrow.” It’s fucked up.
STEREOGUM: There’s one other thing I want to talk about, and that is ska-punk.
ROSENSTOCK: Yeah, let’s talk about it.
STEREOGUM: I grew up on it.
ROSENSTOCK: So you’re an ex-Pitchfork writer, current Stereogum writer, with ska-punk roots.
STEREOGUM: Hell yeah. I was super psyched when you had one ska-punk song on the last record. I never get to write about stuff like that now. For a long time, the closest thing I got to something like that was like “Holiday” by Vampire Weekend.
ROSENSTOCK: Vampire Weekend is a secret ska band for sure.
STEREOGUM: I have a theory that their last record was the most acclaimed because it had no ska on it. Is there a sense somewhere in the back of your mind that you’re, like, carrying the flag?
ROSENSTOCK: Oh, yeah! Maybe not carrying the flag. But I am not going to act for a second like, when what we saw what Pitchfork was paying us, we weren’t like, “Holy shit!” But even before I saw it and got the offer, I was like, “We’re gonna play ska at Pitchfork Music Festival. I don’t fucking give a shit. We’re gonna do that.” I can’t say when or why it became uncool because I never gave a shit. I still like it. The last Bomb The Music Industry! record, Vacation, is the first thing that I did that didn’t have any ska on it. I felt bad not doing it. I don’t want to force it in there, but I was like, “Fuck, man, I’m one of the very people who’s not afraid to be like, ‘All music is good. There’s a good thing to everything.'”
STEREOGUM: When I first started listening to indie rock, I was like 17. It seemed like that was the logical progression. First, you get into punk, and then eventually you get into indie rock, but you still like punk.
ROSENSTOCK: You get into punk and then ska? Or all at the same time?
STEREOGUM: Punk and then ska. There was maybe a year where I was like, “Ska is better than punk.” I was wearing a tie to school and stuff.
ROSENSTOCK: Yeah! That’s what’s up.
STEREOGUM: I went pro as a music writer like 10 or 11 years ago, and talking to other writers, it was like, “Oh, you guys didn’t get into indie rock through punk. That’s weird. You got into it through, like, They Might Be Giants or whatever.” It seems like people are following different trajectories. It seemed weirder to me that nobody ever had a ska phase than everybody had a ska phase.
ROSENSTOCK: Do you believe it? Do you think it’s so weird that it’s not true?
STEREOGUM: I think there’s maybe a handful of people that will cop to it, and then there’s maybe another handful of people who are being a little shady about it. We’re old now, too, so now there’s people who have never lived in an era where bands were playing ska on MTV or whatever.
ROSENSTOCK: I think about this all the time — just not living in an era of compilation CDs. I can’t even imagine that.
STEREOGUM: There probably is a Spotify running ska playlist but…
ROSENSTOCK: Yeah, but I don’t know. The good thing about compilation CDs is that you got good bands and bad bands. Spotify gives you the cream of the crop. They give you the already good songs in theory. But with the compilation CD, you got some duds on there that you think are awesome. You got some awesome songs on there that you think are duds.
STEREOGUM: I was probably 14 when the first Punk-O-Rama came out.
ROSENSTOCK: I remember being at Nobody Beats The Wiz and seeing the new Punk-O-Rama thing. Like: New Offspring song? Sick.
STEREOGUM: I remember being like, “[Rancid’s] ‘I Wanna Riot’ is like the best song on here. I like ska now.”
ROSENSTOCK: I got into ska in a weird way. I heard this, like, polka music and was like, “Why is Rancid doing a polka song?” But I really liked Mr. Bungle. I was really into metal. But I heard the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ Question The Answers, and I was like, “This is a like a hardcore band, but they have a sax.” I played the sax in high school band, and this guy is screaming. Then there is this other thing happening, and I don’t know about that. Then, after weeks of listening to it, I was like, “Wait, no, maybe that’s the part I like a lot. And that’s ska.”