Interview: Jack Antonoff of Bleachers

Jack Antonoff discusses starting Bleachers, the lyrical and musical ides behind debut album Strange Desire, writing with others, and why it’s hard for some people to accept a person being in two bands at the same time.

You’ve been doing a bunch of different stuff to promote this album all over the place – TV shows, podcasts, magazines – and it’s almost like you’re a household name now. What’s that been like to go through?

I get followed a little bit more often [laughs], but besides that there’s nothing really that different. It’s all kind of the same stuff. Even back years and years ago with Steel Train, we were doing late night shows then, interviews and touring like crazy.

No matter how much things change or they get bigger, your body is still physically doing the same thing, going from city to city, talking about the album, playing the shows. It’s weird. It’s like a parallel universe, because there’s so many similarities, but at the same time things have shifted a lot.

Hardly anyone knew you were even doing this Bleachers thing before you released “I Wanna Get Better” at the beginning of the year. How difficult was that for you to keep so contained and under wraps?

It wasn’t difficult, in terms of me being worried everyone was going to find out, because no one was even looking for it. It wasn’t something people would even assume was going on, so nobody was asking questions. The only issue of actually working on the album was if I was working with a producer or something like that, I’d have to be like, “I’m not really talking about this yet.” That was easy.

The part that was hard, though, was I was working on it so much and often I would be working on it alone. It started to feel like a tree falling in the woods type thing. Am I even making this album? Is this even happening? So much of making an album is sharing it with people, getting opinions, and going back and forth.

I was so isolated a lot of the time that there were a lot of moments where I wished I could have been like, “Oh, by the way I’m spending all of my fucking time doing this.” I think when you’re keeping one thing a secret often other things start to feel like lies, even when they’re not. It felt like a weird version of living a lie, even though I wasn’t. I was just not discussing this one thing.

Since you’ve been working on this for the last couple years all over the world, how did you know when it had gotten to the point where it felt complete and ready to get shown to others?

It wasn’t necessarily that there was a moment where I knew it was done. I feel like there is a moment that happens, which is about four months before it was released, where you say to yourself, “OK, this can come out and I’ll be content. I’ll feel like I basically reached the point I was trying to reach.” As far as actually being done, I worked on it until the day we had to master.

I think it’s very important the lag time between an artist making an album, and then people hearing the album, should be as small as possible. In a perfect world, you would record a song and then people would hear it that night. There could be a total connection of this is what I’m feeling right now in this moment, and then people are getting it right now, in that moment. That’s obviously not realistic, so it meant a lot to me to have as little time between finishing the album and putting it out as humanly possible.

The album’s been really well received so far and “I Wanna Get Better” was the No. 1 Alternative song last week. What were your expectations for this whole thing going in?

It’s hard to know, because I’ve known so many different sides of the business. In many ways, I feel like I’ve seen things go really well and things be totally unrecognized. I feel like I’ve learned to not think about that, in a way. You only have so much energy, as far as pushing something. I made the decision early on that all my expectations were going to be artistic.

The moment you release an album, you lose all control. Everything before the album was released, it’s like I had total control. I was in the studio. I was working on everything, from the songs to the way it felt and looked. I was working on it nonstop, so I put all my energy in that phase.

The next phase is putting out the album, and that’s the part where you literally can’t know. The only thing you can control when you put out an album is how much work you put in while you’re making it. The short answer is my brain kind of turns off when I think about expectations and that part. I was fully geared toward artistic expectations.

It’s been four years since the final Steel Train album came out. Obviously, you were able to spend a lot of your creativity into doing fun., but I would imagine there’s something a little different when you’re the sole driving force behind a project like this. Did you find you had a different creative process you were able to tap into for doing this?

Yeah, and that’s why it’s interesting. That question kind of comes up a lot, like why did you do this, and that plays into it, which is that it’s a totally different form of expression. That’s why it matters to me, because it isn’t fun. If it was at all similar, it would have been redundant and irrelevant to do.

For a while, I did Steel Train and fun. at the same time, and that was the same thing where they were very different. Bleachers very much does feel like me picking up where I left off with Steel Train.

Despite the manner in which you wrote this album, it still feels very much like it has a singular vision. Was there some through line you were able to connect with that allowed you to piece this all together?

Yeah, both lyrically, melodically and musically. Lyrically, what ties it all together is being extremely honest about things that I have been through, life experiences, and viewing that through the lens that I’m at now. It’s a lot of the same stories I was telling in Steel Train, too. They just change so much as you get older. Then, there’s finding ways to not just make it dark. I have a greater point there.

“I Wanna Get Better” is a perfect example. The verses read like a diary. They’re like my life story condensed, but then the chorus brings it all around and gives a perspective to it. With all that said, I wanna get better, and that’s the part that makes it inclusive. Lyrically, I wanted to somehow find a blend of it feeling like it’s absolutely personal, like you’re leafing through someone’s diary, but also the kind of thing that people could put themselves into and scream along to, which is what my favorite records are like.

Mountain Goats are one of my favorite bands. A lot of their records, specifically like “This Year” and “Dance Music,” those are songs where I can scream at the top of my lungs. Like, “I’m going to make it though this year if it kills me,” and that chorus. The rest of that song is about his stepfather beating his mother and alcoholism, all sorts of experiences that I didn’t have, but it was very inclusive in one part, which made me connect to the whole song. I thought a lot about that concept with the lyrics, finding ways to not just make it feel like someone’s weeping their sad stories at you, but more like everyone’s in this together.

Then musically, the big concept that carried through the whole thing was this idea of having these slight nostalgic elements from the ‘80s and early ‘90s mixed with this idea of what I imagine the future would sound like, so having a push and pull between past and present. Not even past and present, past and future. It’s sort of the same thing as with lyrics. It’s like making someone comfortable.

“I Wanna Get Better” does that with lyrics. It makes you comfortable with the chorus. It’s for all of us. It’s something we can all relate to, “I wanna get better,” and then once you cross that line and get deeper into it, it gets slightly more frightening in the verses and there’s a lot more to dig into.

Same thing with the music. There’s moments that are slightly nostalgic or things that people can grab onto, and then once they’re in, there’s a whole world that they have to expose. Or at least that’s how I intended it.

Another thing you’ve been describing a lot when talking about the album is that it has a very New Jersey feel to you. For those of us who have never actually been to New Jersey, like myself, what all does that encompass and mean?

What I mean by that, and what’s nice about New Jersey, is the proximity to what I think is the greatest city in the world. It’s right there. I grew up 10 miles outside of New York City, so you’re right there. You’re right in the shadows, and it creates this sense of hope and pride within the people from New Jersey. Jersey people have a bizarre mix of great hope and pride from New Jersey, mixed with we got to get of here and see the rest of the world.

I think that’s a really fascinating energy, and it creates a great sense amongst people to live right next to such greatness but not be right in it. When I went to high school in the City, the kids that had grown up there and lived in the greatness forever were in many ways kind of jaded. Being from New Jersey sort of makes you feel like an underdog for your whole life.

You hear that in the music in a lot of the punk bands that came out of Jersey, and Springsteen. There’s this big sense of hope, this anthemic feeling you don’t get in New York City bands. To me, the album is very centered around and sensitive about that feeling.

There’s a bunch of random audio clips that are interspersed throughout the album. I’m just curious but where did those come from?

They came from a variety of places. The concept behind them was I was thinking a lot about how hip-hop producers and artists are always sampling ‘70s records and other people’s records, and I wanted to find my twist on that. I started thinking, “Maybe I’ll sample moments from my actual life.” That’s what those sounds are. They’re voicemails left from my family, people in my life saying things into my phone.

The “I wanna be grateful” loop that happens all the time, that was my girlfriend’s sister. She came into the studio, they had the mics on, and I asked her what it was like to graduate college. She went on this whole thing about how she feels like she’s trapped in this bubble world. She so badly wants to be grateful for everything she’s experienced, but she also wants to push forward.

That’s exactly how I’ve felt about the past couple years. It just led to this whole idea of grabbing these sounds that are the actual audio moments of my life and then putting them into the record.

The two most experimental songs on the album would probably be the two songs with the features on them. Was that always supposed to be the case or just how it worked out?

That’s just how it worked out. Those songs actually existed the way they were before the features were on them. That ended up being a coincidence, but I mean those are two very experimental artists, Grimes and Yoko. I guess maybe there was a part of me that thought that those would work with them.

In doing some of the marketing and videos for the album, you’ve shown to have a knack for this awkward, deadpan humor. Is acting anything you would ever like to purse at some point?

I don’t know if I’d ever pursue it, but I did do a part in a movie recently. Michael Showalter, who is one of my favorite writers and directors, asked me to play a character named Baby Goya, who’s a musician, in this movie he’s making with Max Greenfield and Sally Field. I did it, so it was really cool. I got to do a scene with Sally Field, which seems like a great opportunity.

Has Lena ever tried to talk you into appearing on Girls?

Um, vaguely, but I wouldn’t want to make any massive moves towards that. It feels like too much of a move.

So anyway, I’m a huge fan of “Rollercoaster,” which I believe was the first song you wrote on this whole thing. Is that going to be the next single?

That will probably be the next single. It’s looking like it. I think it makes a lot of sense coming out of “I Wanna Get Better.” As an album, I almost visualize it as a square in my head, with these parameters and places the album goes. “Rollercoaster” really seems to represent another feeling on the album, and I think that would be a really great second look.

Over the last couple years, in addition to Bleachers and fun., you’ve done co-writes with some wonderful female musicians. Have you had time to do any more of that this year?

Yeah, I’ve been doing a lot of that. The weird thing about co-writing is you’re not really allowed to talk about it, because you never know who’s going to use what. I’ve been doing some stuff with Charli XCX, Brooke Candy and a whole bunch of other artists, but this is the weird thing – it’s not my project, it’s theirs. So I can’t really say what I’m doing, which is one of the things that’s annoying about it.

I’m a giant Sara Bareilles fan. That was my favorite record from last year, and you wrote “Brave” and “Chasing the Sun” with her. What was that like?

That was amazing because that was early on when I first started doing this stuff. When I first got into co-writing, I thought I would try a whole bunch of different things. I did a lot of really dumb shit, a lot of these writing camps for people. I did one for Rihanna, which was an excessively depressing experience. I remember calling my manager right after and being, “That is not why I’m doing this. That’s exactly the opposite of what I want to do.”

The success that I’ve had artistically with writing with people is when I really connect with someone, and then we get in a room and just work together. I met Sara through, actually Sara Quin from Tegan and Sara introduced us over email. She was like, “You guys should be friends, or work together or whatever.”

We met for lunch one day and just talked for a while, and then we decided to go into the studio a couple weeks later. We went into the studio and we wrote and recorded “Brave” in like three hours. We thought it was a cool song, and then everyone later was like, “This is really good.” So a month later we went back into the studio and did “Chasing the Sun.”

When you have a connection with someone, or at least an artistic connection, it helps even more because it’s very natural. It’s exciting to hear someone’s ideas when you’re interested in ideas. Writing with someone else is as beautiful as it can be, but it’s also as disgusting as it can be if it’s not working. It’s like dating.

I have to ask about “Harsh Light,” which is the fun. song you played on The Tonight Show not too long ago. I really loved the song and am curious how it came together, and then you deciding to debut it like that.

We were going to be in Orlando anyway, doing this show, and The Tonight Show was down there. I guess someone over there put it all together and was like, “Well, do you guys want to do The Tonight Show?”

It was so random because we’re right in the middle of the band being off, the moment when you wouldn’t do press and stuff like that, but we were like, “Fuck it, let’s just do it. And if we’re going to do it, we should do a new song.” We went to New York for four days together. We went into the studio, wrote and recorded that song, and then went and played it.

So there’s a recorded version of that song then?

I would say it’s halfway done. It’s just the beginning of recording it, but also the first thing you record for a new album always ends up changing as you discover what the album is.

How indicative of the album do you think that song will be?

I can’t say yet, because we’re really just in the beginning of writing, but it’s definitely something we’re really excited about, it being more of an organic place.

I would say Nate has one of the best voices out there, but do you think with the success of Bleachers maybe you’ll end up singing some on the fun. records now?

I don’t know if I’d want to. I feel like what makes the projects work at the same time is how different they are. I think if they started to bleed into each other, it could compromise the integrity of both. That’s my gut feeling, but I guess anything could happen.

One thing vocally on Strange Desire is it seemed you used more of your lower register than you used in Steel Train. Was that something you wanted to explore?

Yeah, you’re always growing and changing. Sometimes when I demo a song I’ll sing it a whole octave lower than it normally is, because I’m not going to blow out my voice. I’m just going to make a quick version of it. I started doing that, and I kept realizing that I loved singing low and that there’s actually a power there.

Sometimes blasting it out at the top of your range isn’t always the biggest thing. Sometimes you try to go so big that you end up getting smaller, and singing quiet and low can actually really resonate in a deep way. That excited me a lot while I was making the album.

Now that there’s been a little bit of distance between Some Nights, you can definitely see how that record has seeped into pop culture and influenced a lot of the music that has come after. What’s that been like to see happen? Do you feel like the follow-up has this sense that it needs to be just as groundbreaking?

I think that everything has to be groundbreaking. If you’re not doing something groundbreaking, then you’re not doing something groundbreaking. You’re doing something that’s innocuous, or you’re doing something that’s already been done before.

It’s been exciting to see how that record has had an impact. You really see it years later when you remember what the landscape was when that came out, versus what it is now. It’s cool. It was a little idea that started in my parents’ house of maybe if there were more hip-hop beats on top of this production, and it’s really morphed into something that’s very acceptable now in mainstream music. With making future records, it’s all about finding that new idea that hasn’t been fully tapped into yet.

You’ve been referencing a lot about this confusion that some people have been having about you doing two musical projects at the same time, which seems weird to me because that’s something that people have been doing for many years. What’s kind of the deal with that?

I’ve learned a lot about this, just in doing interviews and talking to people. What I think I’ve come to, my theory now, is I think the idea of bands and drama is so ingrained in people that if anything happens with a band that’s more than just making an album-touring, making an album-touring, making an album-touring, people get really weird. What’s going on? What’s happening here? It’s very strange, because making music in some regard is no different than any form of expression.

If Spike Jonze is working on this screenplay and also doing this, everyone’s like, “Oh, that’s great. He’s doing as much work as possible.” Or if someone’s writing three books at a time, or if a painter has two different series going on, that’s just filed under someone who is creating and making new work. When musicians and songwriters do different projects, people get oddly up in arms about it. They’re like, “What does it mean for the other project, or for this project?”

There’s those people who are either freaked out and stressed out about the concept, or if they’re OK with it then they’ll paint you as some Jack White character. Like, “Well, then are you going to start another band?” It’s like, I don’t fucking know. I’m just making the albums that I want to make in the moment. I’m not out here to make a ton of albums or start ‘X’ amount of bands. If you think about it, I haven’t actually put out that many songs or music over the past couple years. I’ve just been doing the work that I wanted to do.

I think there’s a funny energy there with people, and then also the need to categorize one or the other. It seems really hard for people to understand that having two bands is like having two kids. I love them both. Everyone’s always like, “Which one’s the side project?” I tweeted this the other day, and I always bring it up, but when someone has a second kid, no one’s like, “Well, is the first kid a side kid now?”

If I didn’t want to do something, I wouldn’t do it. I choose to do a number of things because I have enough artistic space to do them all, but it is fascinating. I was talking to someone about it yesterday, about how you don’t see it with film, and with books and other art. In those areas, I feel like people are very encouraged to do a lot of work, but I feel like in music there’s a little bit more of a do what you’re doing and nothing else.

Right, and technology now makes it super easy to be working on multiple things at once.

It does, and it’s wonderful because if you get ideas you want to get them out. You don’t want them to die in your head. That stuff will all just take time, and to be honest I’m actually excited about how quickly that stuff is dissipating.

I think once people see it on the road, once people keep hearing the records. If something is a quote-unquote “side project,” it’s usually reactionary. It’s usually apologetic. There’s nothing about Bleachers that says anything besides this is another body of work.