We first heard of Jack Antonoff when the Grammy-Award winning band Fun. released their single “We Are Young” featuring Janelle Monáe in 2011. An instant smash hit, it was only a matter of time before fans grew curious about the band’s three members, including Antonoff, who is Fun.’s lead guitarist. As the band made their round of tours in cities all around the world, Antonoff found himself writing songs in his head from hotel room to hotel room. “I was feeling disconnected; I was never home; I was in this constant state of jet lag in Malaysia or Australia… my life had shifted so much in some ways, but in other ways it was exactly the same.” This seemingly innocuous creative process would eventually materialize into a full-length album called Strange Desire, which Antonoff released as a solo project under the name, Bleachers, in the summer of 2014. Upbeat, catchy, and slightly reminiscent of the lovesick pop songs of the 1980s, Strange Desire is an album that will make you want to dance and cry all at the same time.
Bleachers recently performed at the Lowline Anti-Gala benefit in New York, hosted by Antonoff’s girlfriend and Girls creator Lena Dunham. In addition to his tour, which goes until the end of 2014, Antonoff’ just released a new song with Taylor Swift, “Out Of The Woods,” which he co-wrote and produced. Check out our exclusive interview, photo shoot and video with Antonoff below.
Indira Cesarine: So you were in a punk band in high school?
Jack Antonoff: Yeah, that’s how I got started [with music]. That, for me, was the first moment of going from listening to music in my room to actually wanting to play music. I think punk music is something that is easy for people to get into on a very literal level. You need fewer instruments and less sounds. You just need a guitar and a drummer and you have a punk band.
IC: You play a lot of instruments as well. Did you have other band members involved on the album or did you perform each instrument separately and then compile it?
JA: I did most of it alone. But sometimes I’d rather spend ten hours doing something that someone else could do in twenty minutes just because it’s almost easier to do that, than to explain exactly what I want. Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy with that kind of thing — especially with this album. So much of it was just me, alone, trying to sift through the ideas to try and get it done without going to any outside sources.
IC: What musicians influenced you growing up?
JA: It started out with The Beatles and [Bruce] Springsteen, which is the music that my parents were listening to and is still very important to me. Probably the biggest influence is when the 90s happened. I grew up in the 90s. So, 1993 – 1995 was an amazing time in music and in culture. We were all connected by great music, which isn’t what’s happening now. So many people have different styles of music that they like and there isn’t really one central thing. It’s not like when Michael Jackson was around and we all loved Michael Jackson, or in the 90s when Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana were huge and everyone listened to them. So, when that kind of thing happens, when there is one great thing, we can all talk about it even though we have nothing in common. Kind of like how it is nowadays with TV – I feel like we all talk about Game of Thrones even when we have nothing in common. That’s how it was for music in the 90s, so that was my biggest influence growing up.
IC: Did you listen to the radio a lot or did you have a Walkman?
JA: Both! The radio was a brilliant thing because pop radio would go from Nirvana, Salt-N-Pepa, Melissa Etheridge, to Green Day, to Dr. Dre… popular music was a very wide scale. But I did have a little tape player and a disc man that I had to hold straight up so it wouldn’t skip. Then they invented the Discman, which could be held on its side so it was more mobile. I also had the first iPod – it was the size of a bomb.
IC: Your sound has a lot of synth. Are you also inspired by bands like Depeche Mode?
JA: Vince Clark from Depeche Mode was one of the producers on Strange Desire. I am very inspired by that stuff, specifically because it’s just like with guitar… I think that some of the most inspiring guitar stuff is when they first started going electric and making a lot of noise. For synthesizers, which are on the album, that whole time period from Depeche Mode is when people were really playing with that sound. Pop music really regurgitates all of those ideas over and over again. So if you’re going to be inspired from it, you may as well look to the source. If I’m going to put a whole bunch of synth on the album, I’m going to want it to come from a place of where I’m inspired by people who created synth, not other people who were also inspired by it.
IC: How did you come up with the name “Bleachers”?
JA: It was slightly out of nowhere. I was actually making the song “Like A River Runs”–and the word “bleachers” doesn’t appear in the song– but you know when you’re working on your computer and you have to save it under something, even something irrelevant? I wrote “bleachers” as the file name. The song became a mission statement for the album, a very central piece of the sound. It felt exactly like what I was doing in my head. I didn’t want to do my name because it feels too much like “here comes my solo project” and I wanted it to feel less like that and more like “here’s a different body of work”. When I thought about it, I just came back to this word that I randomly used. I love the word and I think it feels very suburban — very much like a time that I’m always thinking and writing about. It feels very disconnected in a way. I didn’t really think about it or have a list of names–it just came out. It was very natural.
IC: Obviously you’re in the band Fun. How do you navigate being in two bands and why do your own solo project when you’re part of this Grammy-winning band?
JA: I was talking to someone recently and they were saying that this is the kind of thing that I should’ve done four years down the road. I did it, not because I had to do it or because I had nothing going on, but because I wanted to and, most importantly, I felt inspired to. You don’t really know when you’re going to be inspired to write songs. You could be in the studio for a year, in the perfect environment, and not write a thing. Sometimes you’re on a world tour or you’re sitting in a hotel room for three hours and you get inspired. That’s exactly how this album happened. These ideas just came and you have to follow them when they come. That’s always been very important to me – to follow through with ideas and make them. I just had ideas for an album on the world tour and I followed them.
IC: Where did this inspiration come from?
JA: I think it was a lot of inspiration coming from things that were going on. I was feeling disconnected; I was never home; I was in this constant state of jet lag in Malaysia or Australia… my life had shifted so much in some ways, but in other ways it was exactly the same. I was getting up, getting on to a plane or a bus, playing a show, going to bed–it just blew up. It was like a parallel universe, and it was bizarre. I think a lot of loneliness comes from that and, looking back on it, working on this album was the thing that helped me through it all. It makes sense in hindsight but at the time it didn’t. I didn’t really know what was going on but I knew that there were ideas there. I was focusing on it one day at a time and I wouldn’t admit to myself that I was making an album, because I would’ve had a panic attack. But if I would just say “When I wake up in Japan tomorrow, I want to go to the studio before the show”– that was manageable. I’ve never made an album like that before. It was always at home, making demos, writing, going to the studio, recreating them… what ended up on the album was stuff that I worked on in hotel rooms on tour.
IC: Tell me about your album Strange Desire. I understand that you drew from a lot of different references – like teenage trauma and loss – and you’re kind of juxtaposing this with something joyous?
JA: The name speaks to the direction a lot. I don’t always understand what compels me to do the things that I do but I feel compelled to do them. In making this album, it falls under that umbrella. Specifically, there is this song by The Mountain Goats called “This Year,” which I’ve been covering, and it made me realize a lot about songwriting. The chorus is “I’m going to make it through this year if it kills me” which is something that I feel like everyone can relate to, no matter where they are or what’s going on. The verse to the song is all about this guy’s stepfather beating his mother, and growing up in this intense environment, which are experiences that I haven’t had at all. But I could relate to it so much because he was being honest and giving something back to the listener by making it broad at one point. Also giving ways to tell these horrible stories with a spin to make them hopeful. That, to me, became the theme of the whole album. Having moments that read like a diary that are very dark and intense, and then finding a way to spin it all back around so that there’s some sense of hope. I think the deeper you go and the shittier you get on the album, if you can bring it back, it’s important. I think we live in an age with a lot of “party until we die” type records, and the albums and songs that mean the most to me are extremely honest. I think it’s important for fans and artists to share on that level. There are a lot of concepts of revisiting the past with this idea of moving forward by doing that. I think with this album, it was important to have it sound like the struggle that I have in my head and not filter it or make it sexy — just have it as what it is. My favorite songs and bands are the ones that can make you dance or cry; it doesn’t have to be one or the other. There can be this idea of a big song with intense, dark lyrics… they don’t always have to work together.
IC: Your song “I Wanna Get Better” is the first big hit off of the album so far. Can you tell me about that song and your inspiration for it?
JA: I had the idea in my head of “I wanna get better” and I wanted to write that into a song. What I think about everyday when I wake up and before I go to bed is some version of those words. I think everyone does in his or her own way–whether you left your home and went to a foreign place and lost everything, or you stubbed your toe, I think it’s something that we can all relate to. To me, it’s the highest form of consciousness — not wanting to be better but to get better. I think that’s the happiest that someone could be: wanting to move forward. So that’s something that I knew I wanted to have this song centered on– this idea– and have a chorus of myself shouting the words. I felt like I could really share that with the audience and have a real moment of connection. But, then you take an idea like that and think that it could be really irrelevant if you don’t give it weight. What I came up with is to shout “I wanna get better” in the chorus and be very candid and specific in the verses. It took me forever to write because I wanted it to be perfect. I wrote it about things that have shaped my life; things that I have lost; people I have lost; things I’ve struggled with; anxiety and depression; but they always end up in this place right before the chorus where I say “I wanna get better,” and that whole theme is the central idea of the whole album. That song in many ways is the front door to the house — that song is the central idea. With the video, we just had all of these different ideas and the concept of shooting therapy sessions seemed like a good idea. We sat there and had therapy sessions and made a ton of shit up. Some of it was bizarre. One day we’ll have to release all of the extra footage of these improvised therapy sessions with all of these hilarious people.
IC: What other songs on the album do you feel resonate with you the most?
JA: The album is a big puzzle. The way that I see singles are the ones that are meant to bring people in. There’s a song called “Take Me Away,” which I did with Grimes which would never be a single, but it’s a song that I want people to hear once they get dragged in –willingly dragged in, that is. I think the next single will be “Rollercoaster,” which is exciting for me. There’s something very nostalgic about it. It’s about a whirlwind romance that takes you out of your body and makes you crazy. I think that’s something that people can share and talk about. But the sound of the song means a lot to me because it feels like driving in New Jersey, which is exactly how it was written. I like to write in places where people hear music. I think it’s bad to do too much work in a studio because that’s not where people hear music. Not many people listen to music in a ten million dollar studio with fifty thousand dollar speakers. But, if you write songs in your bedroom or in a hotel room or driving, I can imagine people driving and listening to that song. “You’re Still A Mystery” and “Like A River Runs” are two I would also like to get out. “Like A River Runs” is also similar to “I Wanna Get Better” because it’s all centered around loss and trying to move on and trying to remember without becoming riddled with baggage. “You’re Still A Mystery” is a lighter song about being in love with someone and still feeling like they’re still a mystery as time goes on, which is a thrilling feeling.
IC: I hear that you’ve been doing some very creative marketing with your new album – like your telethon. What compelled you to take such a unique approach?
JA: I think that people get bashful when it comes to [promoting]. People put everything into making the album and then when it comes time to promote it, they feel weird about promoting it. It’s too bad because the way that people find out about your music could determine whether or not they actually listen to your music. Sometimes I look at things in a negative way, like what don’t I want to do? Sometimes that helps me figure out what I really want to do. In 2014, the dumbest idea is another hashtag campaign or another Instagram contest. I wanted to look at the lowest common denominator and looked at the things that I wanted to stay away from. So we thought to go back to 90s culture with hotlines and telethons. I remember I saw Green Day at the Garden in 1994 and Billie Joe took all of his clothes off, and I went to school the next day and told everyone. They just had to believe me because there was no video. So that discovery in a world where discovery is almost impossible… we tried to find ways to do that. We announced the album on Craigslist, so even if just a couple people saw before it hit Rollingstone.com, those people had that feeling [of discovery] and that feeling permeates. Or the telethon, before it went online, was on public television at 2am the night of the release. I was seeing all of this stuff on Twitter of people saying, ‘What the fuck is this?’ People were discovering it. The whole idea was to find any way that you can still have discovery in a world where everything goes viral immediately. Finding ideas that cut through the noise, and finding ideas that are artistically as exciting as the music. You can make a great record and throw it out there and promote it the same way everyone else does. I think the way you present the album is very important. We’re still working on it and coming up with new ideas that are different and exciting.
IC: Why Craigslist?
JA: We were trying to find these platforms where people were trolling around anyways, and flip it and use it on itself. We sent ten fans birthday cakes with the album artwork on it to announce the album artwork and then they tweeted it. It was just a bizarre way to put it out there. Instead of just blasting it out… just something before the moment when it gets blasted out. That’s my philosophy. Do something special first.
IC: There has been a lot of talk about your admiration for Taylor Swift. Can you tell me about the choices you make when you collaborate with other artists?
JA: Collaborating with other artists is cool because it’s making choices together. I would never write for someone, but I like to write with people. When you write for someone, you end up doing something stupid. You end up doing a bad version of what they do because you’re not in their head. But working with someone is thrilling because you can sit there and talk about where they’ve been, where they want to go, and actually be a part of that process. [Taylor] is really incredible because she’s not scared to try new things or to make new albums and push forward. That’s what it’s really about at the end of the day — not making the same album twice. The bigger someone is, the more exciting it is when they’re still wide open with that concept.
IC: Are there any other artists you’ve collaborated with recently?
JA: I’ve been working with Brooke Candy. I love Brooke. We’ve been doing a bunch of stuff together for her new album. I worked with Charli XCX a little bit. There has been a whole bunch of stuff going on all at once. I usually like working with female artists for some reason. Men are gross.
IC: So you’re on your Strange Desire world tour. What can we expect from that?
JA: Well it’s changing all the time, which is what’s cool about touring. You make an album and you have so much control working towards this final thing that will exist forever, and then that phase ends, and the phase of a year or two of touring starts. Every night is different. Something could happen at a show between you and the audience that could change the course of the entire show. I’m really just trying to embrace that phase of not having control and it being different and exciting every night.
IC: Are there any particular locations that you’re going to perform at that you haven’t been to before or that you’re looking forward to?
JA: I kind of just want to take it everywhere. You put out an album and that’s what it is. But as soon as it’s out, it’s like you want to go everywhere and reinterpret it live. Everyone has heard the album and that makes you want them to hear it again live. We’re going to tour for a long time with this.
IC: Do you have a motto?
JA: “Don’t fuck up.” It’s repeated in my head.
IC: have you ever collaborated with your girlfriend [Lena Dunham] on professional projects?
JA: Well, we did the video [for “I Wanna Get Better”] together, which was cool because I’ve heard that working with someone you’re in a relationship with can be a bad thing. I do music for her show [Girls] every once in a while, too. If I have a cool song that she hears me working on, she’ll throw it in. We only work together when it’s easy and fun, you know? Because that’s what it should be. It’s important to constantly separate work and business from the art of what you do.
IC: Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
JA: Hopefully, still alive. Everything I always thought would happen didn’t. And the things that I never thought would happen did. So, you just never know. I think that’s what exciting — not having an idea but to know so much is possible. I guess the only thing I really would hope for is to still be inspired and to still be making music and pushing forward.
– Interview and Photography by Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine
Watch our exclusive behind the scenes video featuring Jack Antonoff: