On Monday night (September 28), punk icon Jeff Rosenstock made his late-night TV debut by roaring through “Scram!” on Late Night with Seth Meyers. Like his indefatigably sweaty live shows, it was an energetic affair. Backed by his masked-up band, Death Rosenstock, the kinetic front-person shouted, clapped, and perspired through the three-minute rager, with Black Lives Matter written on his face covering. Bassist John DeDomenici was green-screened in, giving the rendition presence a trippy and occasionally unsettling punch. There was even a lightly subliminal message to buy his new album, No Dream. To hear Rosenstock describe it, the three-minute remote performance perfectly fit the hellish year 2020 has been.
“We live in fucking chaos hell. I want to be honest about us living in chaos hell,” Rosenstock tells MTV News.
Rosenstock has spent the past five years steadily yet forcefully emerging from the punk underground to become the voice for an anxious, exhausted crowd determined to not let them win. His 2016 and 2018 albums — Worry. and POST-, respectively — became life-affirming salves for expressing fury and weariness in the Trump era, irresistibly hooky and blistered with rage; mere days after he surprise-released No Dream in May, the country (and then the world) exploded into mass demonstrations against police brutality, vigilante violence, and racial injustice.
“Scram!” soundtracks this year, even as it dates back to the POST- era, written about “leftist anarchist types basically fucking up Lindsey Graham’s lunch.” “When Lindsey Graham was out to eat, people would go and be like, ‘Fuck you, Lindsey Graham.’ Then I was like, that’s awesome! Because these people are ruining thousands and thousands of lives with their bigotry, with their racism, with their tricks into keeping the income gap as wide as possible [and] taking advantage of the working class,” Rosenstock says. “Then the other side is basically just like, ‘If you can’t have a polite conversation with us, then we are not going to listen to you.’ It’s just like, what the fuck? Fuck you, man.”
This year, Rosenstock raised thousands of dollars through Instagram-livestream performances benefitting The Bail Project, the First Nations Development Institute, and various other progressive activist organizations across the United States. With the live-music industry shut down, Death Rosenstock’s joyously deranged ceremonies had to be scaled down to cozier solo livestreams. Jeff yelled his voice hoarse and pounded acoustic guitars. The stave diving and communal moshing were replaced by jokes and emojis in a scrolling chat. “In all of them, the thing that resonated with me was just people goofing off in the chat and people who were happy to see their friends, or people who were happy to talk to their online friends in a way that doesn’t feel permanent, like a comment on a Facebook post or an Instagram post or a Tweet or something that somebody could get back at you for,” he says.
As live music continues to be experienced through screens, livestreams, and remote performances on Seth Meyers, Rosenstock talks to MTV News about that experience, releasing a set of more mellow material as 2020 Dump, and this chaos-hell year’s potential extraterrestrial silver lining.
MTV News: This Late Night performance is going to be a way for people that don’t know you to get to know you. What does it mean to get that distinction now at this point in your career?
Jeff Rosenstock: I don’t really know what any of it means, you know what I mean? It’s just exciting. It’s cool. I know that we’re on it because Seth is a fan, which is a cool thing. It makes me feel like we got to this spot on our own, not because — this is how I imagine it all works: Somebody gives Mr. NBC $50,000 and is like, “Hey, put my band, The Motorcycles, on there,” or something like that. I don’t really know how it works. It was a pleasant surprise that it wasn’t because of anything like that, but it’s because they were just like, “Oh, no. We like your band. We like your music.” That’s a cool thing.
MTV News: It gives you a chance to introduce yourself in a certain way. How much are you thinking about that when you choose to wear a mask, first of all, and know that it’s going to be a Black Lives Matter mask, and all those considerations?
Rosenstock: To me, that seemed like the bare minimum you could do, to show awareness of … how necessary it is to hold police accountable for continuously murdering Black people. I feel like that’s the very least I could do, if I’m there, is wear a mask that I wrote “Black Lives Matter” on. I was trying to be really considerate of making it have energy, in a certain way. Just to feel alive and truthful to the moment that we’re in. I feel like I’ve seen people do things that either felt stiff or felt really solemn and reverent to the times that we are living in. I just was hoping that ours felt a little bit more chaotic and energetic.
Our bass player had to be green-screened in for it. He was like, “Well, do I have to wear a mask? Because I’m not going to be around anybody.” Our keyboard player was like, “You think we fucking wore masks because we want to wear masks? We have to wear masks. You’ve got to wear a mask. Screw you!” I think that I just wanted to be honest to what we’re living in right now. We all got tested beforehand. We all treated it in a really, really safe way, as safe as we possibly could. Then I see performances where people seem to defiantly not be doing that. I’m just like, Jesus fucking Christ, you people.
MTV News: 2020 has really given people so much time, and you’ve recorded more music. You’ve done a ton of livestreams and raised money. Has staying busy made 2020 feel a bit more bearable for you?
Rosenstock: I feel happy every time that I get to play a livestream and just get to feel like I’m communicating with people who I would usually see throughout the year. I feel very, very, very, very, very fortunate to be in a position where I can help to raise money for good causes like that. But I don’t know — I think I feel like a lot of people feel, where I wish I was getting more done. I wish I was taking all those online courses or whatever and becoming a better mix engineer. Or I wish I was learning how to build things, since I finally am not living in an apartment. In theory, I could just get a saw and build shit. But it feels really difficult to get it done because there’s just five layers of, I don’t know, neon red-level threat distractions happening all the time. That makes it kind of hard to do it, you know? It makes me happy also when Craig of the Creek episodes air that I had worked on throughout all of this. I’ve always felt lucky to be able to channel negative energy into something that feels like, at the very least, it’s creative.
MTV News: It’s been about six months of you and other artists doing those livestreams in different capacities instead of playing regular shows. What’s that experience been like?
Rosenstock: I think just because of my personality, five minutes before a livestream, I’m like, oh shit, what songs am I going to play? Oh shit, I didn’t practice any of those songs. Oh shit, I didn’t warm up. Shit, I didn’t realize it was already 6:00. Shit, shit, shit. I haven’t adjusted to being able to do them better. I think of it as a good thing. It still feels like a similar nervous energy to the first time I did it, where it was just, oh, how’s this going to go? I think that’s something that we embrace a lot in our band, when we’re playing a show: that we don’t go into it expecting that it’s going to go well.
MTV News: It’s cool to hear the more mellow material you released as 2020 Dump songs as a counterpoint to No Dream. Were you nervous about sharing that stuff at all, knowing that they’re more like demos?
Rosenstock: I tried to not treat them as demos once I knew I was going to put them out because I don’t know what’s going to happen with these songs. I don’t know if, at the end of the day, this is going to feel like, well, this was the most real representation of the song, even though it was something that I recorded at home. I was just thinking a little more about Guided By Voices or old Mountain Goats tapes or Dear Nora, just stuff that. There was a mountain of material. It wasn’t all necessarily beautifully recorded in a studio, all planned out. The way the recordings are, that’s them as they’re being written.
Nervous to put them out? I guess so. But I’m nervous to put everything out. Two of the songs that are on there were songs I was thinking about for No Dream, but never really figured out. I knew No Dream was going to be a fast record. I couldn’t find the heart in them yet. I couldn’t find where they wanted to go. It didn’t make sense in context of that. Now it’s making sense. But then it’s also — I don’t know if it feels too gloomy, or something. I don’t know. I’m thinking way too much about all of it and I’m trying to not overthink it as much, which is, I think, the point of trying to put them out in this way.
MTV News: What’s something you’re feeling optimistic about right now?
Rosenstock: I wish I had a greater, quicker answer. But I think it’s pretty exciting that throughout 2020, because of all the shit that’s been going on, they’ve just been quietly dropping all this stuff that I knew already: verifying that UFOs are real and that there’s alien life and shit.
I think that a lot more people are understanding that we’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes by the ruling class. I don’t know if that is just the bubble that I exist in. I think that the other edge of that sword is that there’s also a lot more hateful people who are just like, “Yeah, man. I don’t give a fuck about anybody.” But I’m hoping that the things that we’re learning, if we make it through, we’re actually going to be able to take stock of everything and try and treat people better. I think that the enormous show of support for protecting Black and brown lives from police officers, all over the country, all over the world; who are literally being shot at with rubber bullets, literally being gassed, being kettled in, being beaten… I think that’s a very good thing to see at a time where it feels like everything is just devoid of any sort of hope.
Although, what if it’s bad alien stuff? That would be the only appropriate way for this year to end — that we found out all this alien shit and surprise, surprise: They hate us, because we’ve wasted our planet. Then they kill us, and then that’s that.