You didn’t know you needed bedroom, emo-trap, but Rothstein knew. The Boston-born and Brooklyn-based artist, who self-describes as Raymond Carver, but pop, makes crooning and achy music live from his acid trips.
Best known for his hit “Get Your Shit Together,” his newest EP, DEADMALL + ROTHSTEIN, releasing September 6, is a tight collection of broken and isolated sad boi bangers, poised to get you in your feelings, but also lost in some heady thought. Made during a weekend-long acid trip with production duo Deadmall, the project is a snapshot of the ends of the SoundCloud rap ecosystem, where landscapes are a vibrant and decaying purple.
None of this is to say Rothstein, 27, is a lost boy himself. Though his music is tinged with hurt, the young man speaks with an impressive candor and self-awareness, and he sounds like he’s having a good time with it, too. His thoughtful and measured tone is a reminder artists are more than their sonic personas, and also makes his sound all the more endearing. When he gets to that dark place, he creates, but goodness, he doesn’t have to stay there once the wax is pressed.
Rothstein is a kind soul with an eye for art and a big heart for his fans. Our interview is nothing short of a look into the mind of a man enveloped in a creative purity. We talk about everything, lightly edited for content and clarity. It follows below.
DJBooth: When did you first discover the power of music?
Rothstein: I had to have been tiny. My dad’s a drummer. He always played jazz. I know he played funk when I was younger. The first time I felt the power of it? My bios all say, “Jackson Brown’s at-risk nephew.” My mother used to always play me this weepy ‘70s singer-songwriter shit. I remember when I was 10, my uncle pulling me aside and saying, “Kid, this Jackson Browne, this stuff your mother is playing, it’s great, but you need to check out Frank Zappa.”
All of this music that was guitar-heavy, really ironic, really cool to him. [But] I didn’t like it. So I went back and listened to Late for the Sky, this Jackson Browne album, and the title track, in particular, was me knowing what my taste looked like. I couldn’t then articulate what it did for me. It was literary and melodramatic and full of feeling. It made me cry. I thought, “I don’t even care what people I love want out of music. This is it for me.”
What’s your musical lineage? Who do you consider yourself a sonic child of?
I’d almost divide it into two categories: sonic child and lyrical child. On the sonic side, I wanna say I’m the child of Usher, for sure. If three people could make a baby, it would’ve been Usher, Future, and Joni Mitchell. So much of the music I grew up on was hip-hop and not just current hip-hop, but anything from Phonte to Kool G Rap. That evolved into me delving into Usher and Future. Future is like my dad. I can’t even begin to explain how fucked up my life was when I first heard Monster, and to have somebody there who was both wrapped up in their arrogance and wrapped up in their self-hatred and having it sound exactly how I wanted it to sound.
Lyrical child, it’s like Donald Fagan of Steely Dan for sure, on the irony, cynical, sneering side. And then, oh man, maybe Phonte? There was so much of that early aughts lyrical hip-hop that spoke to me and taught me how to write and structure formats. That’s a sort of unholy mix, but those are the names that pop into mind, and I’m inclined to trust them.
With all your influences, what drove you to make bedroom trap on the new EP?
Shit! I’ve never heard it called that before. I hope you don’t mind if I borrow that one. There’s such a broad BPM range in trap. It’s emotional to me. It feels like a good backdrop to me for songs that are detail-oriented, emotional, and deal with the nuances of human relationships. Which is I suppose how “Get Your Shit Together” came about? That was the moment that I found my sound.
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When I wrote that song, I remember so distinctly; I was in my backyard four years ago in Ridgewood. I was flat broke. I was angry at myself. I had this beat from a SoundCloud producer named Ryan Jacob, who I admired. I knew he was an 18-year-old kid from Australia, so it wasn’t like I could bring him into the studio. What came out of that session was clarity for me. I could take these sonics backdrops that I’m attracted to and write about myself, and people are gonna listen to it.
I got a call from my long-time manager saying this had been playlisted on a big Spotify playlist and I told him “Cool!” I had no idea what that meant. I was definitely in the process of looking for a real job, but that’s something I’ve never been good at. I logged into Spotify, and I started to watch it soar. I thought maybe people are starting to hear this. The feedback I got from friends and strangers was “This pushed buttons for me,” and I thought, “Shit, me too. I think this is it.” I’ve been chasing that dragon ever since.
So, you describe yourself as “what might happen if Raymond Carver wrote pop songs on trap beats.” I love Carver, I have one on my desk, and I hear it. Tell me about that description.
I love that you hear it. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is my favorite book. That first story is probably my favorite short story. I never had the attention span for novel-form writing, much to the chagrin of my mom who’s an avid reader. Short stories make a lot of sense to me, and that one, more than any short story I’ve ever read, is an exercise in painting the strange nuance of human relationships. I was so hoping you would bring this up.
To me, that story was about a few things, but the detail at the end that always stuck with me is the woman in the young couple who had just been the yard sale and danced with the man who was getting rid of all these things. To paraphrase the last bit of that: She kept talking and talking and talking. There was something more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a while, she quit trying. That’s what I want to achieve with my music: To be able to succinctly and aptly describe a strangely specific situation between people. When I read that, I didn’t feel alone. And that’s what I want people to get out of my music.
I read you dropped a lot of acid to make your upcoming EP. How was that?
Thank you for asking! It was great. It was bizarre because these guys—Honeyfitz and Gabe Gill, who comprise Deadmall—each in their own way are little brothers to me. I came and visited Gabe and Honeyfitz in the show house that they lived in. It was like 20 kids living in it at once, and it was a mess. I was intimidated. I didn’t feel like making music. But the night after, they held a big show and partied all night. They offered me some acid, we all did a bit, and we made all three of those songs that evening. I didn’t take enough to be tripping visually. I wasn’t outside of myself; I was just somewhere deep inside of myself. It felt like all of the conventions of form and of trying to make good music flew out the window, and I was able to articulate what I wanted to say.
Did it scare you to get so vulnerable on the EP? Your old work had a touch of swagger that was missing from this piece.
Yes! It scared the shit out of me, but I think in the same way that roller coasters scare me. It was thrilling to know it could be that morose, and that uncomfortably personal, and that I could still like it. So much of my day-to-day life is that swaggering through the pain. The swagger is an artifice, but it doesn’t always have to be there. The EP felt more like a diary entry than anything I’ve ever made before. That’s opened me up to making a lot more music in that vein. As uncomfortable as it was to listen back to the first couple of times, it was maybe the most honest thing I’ve put on record.
Lastly, what would you say to the fans that say your music helped them through something dark? And you can’t just say, “Thank you.”
That would be the first thing I’d say. I’d try not to well up. I would struggle not just to say “Here’s my number, call me.” I want people to feel seen. I would tell them that I’ve probably been through some of the shit that they had been through. I’d probably tell them that things get worse and they get better and that I love them.