Jeff Rosenstock was focused on one thing when the year began: finishing his fourth solo album, NO DREAM. The rock singer-songwriter and bandleader had just moved cross-country from a Brooklyn apartment to a home in Los Angeles in January, but instead of exploring his new city, he made the drive up to Oakland to record new music. When he finished mixing the album at the end of February, he celebrated at a friend’s backyard barbecue, where he remembers telling everyone, “They’re really saying this coronavirus is gonna shut shit down, that’s crazy!” Just days later, that’s exactly what happened to L.A., so Rosenstock and his wife hunkered down in their new home. He worries about what would’ve become of the album if he hadn’t finished it before the quarantine chaos. “The magic would be gone,” he says. “I feel like this record probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”
Once NO DREAM was recorded and mixed, Rosenstock waited for July 26, when he originally planned to surprise-drop the album as he’d done in the past. But by early May, as more concerts got canceled, he changed his mind. Rosenstock figured that if he wanted to listen to new music, his fans must too, so he pushed the record out as soon as possible. It was on-brand as ever for the DIY veteran, who built a music community by fronting independent New York ska-punk bands the Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb the Music Industry!, along with founding the donation-based Quote-Unquote Records, before going solo. He surprise-released NO DREAM — a potent mix of layered punk guitars, eminently shoutable choruses, and some of the most straightforward rock Rosenstock has ever made — on the label on May 20, collecting donations for Food Not Bombs. It wasn’t his first unannounced release: He dropped his previous solo album, the cathartic POST-, for free on New Year’s Day 2018.
The timing was perfect, even if fortuitous. Nearly every song has a line that sounds like it’s about the pandemic — one is even called “The Beauty of Breathing.” Then on songs like the title track, Rosenstock takes aim at the racists in power: “Fuck all the fakers acting like they’re interested in hearing us,” he screams, “When we yell, ‘Hold accountable the architects of hopelessness and never-ending violence!’” (He talked with Vulture before protests against police brutality swept the nation.) None of this is new for Rosenstock; his crowd-size anthems regularly explore meaty subjects like anxiety, death, and fascism. Critics and fans praised his October 2016 album WORRY. for capturing the pre-election mood, and POST- even more for channeling Trump-era rage.
But, he admits, “It would be pretty deluded to make a record and think, ‘This is gonna bring everyone together and everyone’s gonna be happy and no one’s gonna remember anything bad!’” Instead, Rosenstock holds little expectation for the way NO DREAM might be received: “I just want it to be good.” In the month since its release, fans and critics have latched onto the record as a welcome balm during the pandemic. Following his surprise drop, Rosenstock spoke to Vulture about releasing an album during the pandemic and the anger in his music.
Does this release feel any different than POST-?
I mean, the obvious thing that feels different is I feel like I planned out a year and a half of my life of touring on this record. It was all scheduled harder than I’ve ever scheduled anything in my entire life. When we put out records, our band is always really excited to play songs for people. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sting a little bit that we don’t get to do that right away, but we’ll do it eventually.
Was the plan always for it to be another surprise drop?
Yeah. I just like doing stuff like that. For me, a long album rollout … I feel like by the end of that cycle, when the album is out, people are kind of bored with it. The lead-up becomes the story. And I’m like, the album is the thing. There’s this strange mentality of like, put out your three best songs first, and then you’ll put out nine other songs that are not as good and hope people get really excited about it. [Laughs.] I don’t wanna do that.
When did you know that now was the time to put it out?
A couple of weeks beforehand. A few things that we had planned for the album rollout in New York [were] definitely not happening. And [my team and I] just spoke on the phone and were like, “Okay well, when’s the soonest time that we could put this out?” Let’s get together all the preorder merch items, and let’s get a bio written and take press photos in my backyard and shit.
It felt like there was a bit of time where we didn’t know if people were just going to stop releasing albums during this.
As a music fan, when I would see bands postponing their records coming out, I knew for sure I had no fucking interest in doing that. That seemed lame to me. I’ve got nothing to do, I’m sitting around at home, I want a new record.
A lot of this stuff was written before we recorded POST-. I knew how I wanted pacing to go, but over last summer, I just sat down and got it all together and got rid of the songs that weren’t working. We weren’t on tour for the last year or so, and it was a really open amount of time to just work on songs that I had been batting around my head and work on songs that felt immediate to me.
I feel like fans tend to say WORRY. is the pre-Trump record and POST- is the “okay, now all this is happening” record. How much were you thinking about how NO DREAM was going to get interpreted right now?
I didn’t think about it at all until I started talking to people about the record. For me, it was a record of personal growth — trying to hold myself accountable for my own bullshit basically, and trying to come out at the other end as a better person. When I started playing it, people were like, “Oh man, this is about fucking corona times.” [Laughing.] I was like, “Oh, is it?” I’m definitely not happy that the things in our world that are happening are happening, but it is nice to think that my band and I have made something that’s giving people specific comfort right now.
NO DREAM feels less angry than POST-, or has less of that “wow, everything sucks” feeling to it.
I guess another way you could say it is POST- is kind of a finger-pointy record, and there were clear targets to be yelling at. But maybe on this one, the scope of who is to blame just seems to get bigger and bigger and bigger.
I was trying to feel some personal growth over the last couple of years. There was four years in a row when I was on tour, and there were times at the end of that where I did not feel like I knew who I was anymore. [I was] having these weird meta-conversations about me or my music instead of just having a normal conversation with a friend. And I think there is a lot of anger on this record, but it’s in different, little focused bursts. I was hoping to reach a point where by the time I was done with it, I was able to come to terms with the things that I was angry with myself about. I [also] tried to throw in some points where it wasn’t really about anger — where it was about the gratitude that I feel for the things I’ve been able to experience over the last couple of years. I did get to go through that with my wife and my best friends.
What gives you hope right now?
I would be lying if I said that I feel a whole lot of hope for how things are gonna shake out here. I know that there are people who benefit from the consolidation of power towards the mega-corporations, and I think that their reaction to this pandemic has been very clearly one that shows that they want to keep raking in profits over it. It’s really depressing to see our government be actively complicit in that shit. But it really gives me hope to see that people who I know, people who I don’t know, are trying to take care of each other, because no one else is going to take care of us. Some people won’t — we’ve seen that, and that’s not great. But some people will, and I think that’s inspiring and makes me want to do the same thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.