Interview: Bleachers, finding a way back home.
Jack Antonoff is currently on a journey, both of the mind and of the body, to get himself back home. It’s a journey that has spanned a lifetime for the 34-year-old, literally starting back in the early 2000s when Antonoff first headed out into the world on tour, and one that is still going today.
It’s the physical aspect of this journey which brought Antonoff down to New Zealand this past February, where his band Bleachers opened for Paramore across their New Zealand and Australian tour. During our time with Antonoff, his frenetic energy is undeniable. He’s literally everywhere all at once - in front of me enthusiastically searching for something very specific on his iPhone, doing laps around a hotel conference room, trying on different items of clothing, breaking a cookie in half, blowing his nose (and apologising for his ongoing hay fever), taking photos on his phone for a sneaky Instagram story, and inspecting a selection of speciality New Zealand snacks. At the end of our time with Antonoff, I’m pleasantly surprised that we have managed to get through our strict minute-by-minute timesheet, and wonder if he applies the same strategic energy when it comes to his music-making.
Listen to any Bleachers song and you’ll instantly be transported to Antonoff’s childhood in his hometown state of New Jersey, where a town is in mourning for Mickey Mantle, where you’re standing on an overpass screaming at the top of your lungs, where a preacher from the back room calls your name, where riding the Rolling Thunder wooden rollercoaster at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson is a recent memory, and where Antonoff grew up with his family, who frequently appear now on his own social media (his father Rick in particular is renowned by fans for his ‘deal-making’ abilities), until he packed himself into a van with his closest friends, who together were Outline, an early punk band, and drove themselves to Florida, and his life of touring began.
After Outline was Steel Train, formed again with his closest friends from school, which gave Antonoff a true taste of being in a band. Cut to 2008, and Antonoff joined fun. alongside Nate Ruess and Andrew Dost, and after their debut album gained an audience, they signed to Fueled By Ramen for the follow-up. A collaboration and tour with Panic! At The Disco followed, and ‘We Are Young’, the lead single from their sophomore album, became a global sensation, featuring in commercials for Apple, Chevrolet, and pop-culture hallmarks ‘Gossip Girl’ and ‘Glee’. This time period also saw Antonoff begin co-writing with other musicians, including Sara Bareilles, Tegan and Sara, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Taylor Swift - a growing list that would continue to grow as Antonoff’s reputation for songwriting (and being a general good human) began to precede him.
Talk to anyone in the music industry, and you’ll hear nothing but niceties about Antonoff. When recently on the phone with Panic! At The Disco’s Brendon Urie, he jested, “Oh my god, how much time do you have?” Going on to sing nothing but his praises, and talking about when he first met Antonoff: “About eight years ago, me and Spencer [Smith] hung out with fun. It was Jack Antonoff and Nate Ruess. We were just hanging out in Jack’s parent's music room in New Jersey, and we were just writing stuff together.” Their work together culminated in the previously mentioned collaboration ‘C’mon’, but Urie also shared that there’s more unheard tracks that Antonoff helped write for P!ATD: “I have demos that Jack wrote for us, like, eight years ago now - that’s fucking crazy.”
“I think Jack is one of the kindest, smartest individuals I’ve ever met in my life, and that’s no exaggeration. He’s kind of next level in terms of his musicality, it’s hard to put it into words,” Urie went on to tell me. Considering the long list of close friends and collaborators in the industry that Antonoff has attained over the years, it’s a sentiment echoed by many, including the unexpected. UK band Wolf Alice compliment Antonoff's most recently produced record for another artist: "I love what he did in that last St. Vincent record, I thought there was a guitar sound he got which sounded massive. He seems so versatile, for his age as well! He doesn't seem that old, right? He has really defined what modern pop kind of sounds like and then done something which is almost like an art concept with St. Vincent (if you've seen the live shows)."
Since heading out on that first tour, Antonoff’s life has been a constant state of happenings, in the ups and downs of life, and in a seemingly never-ending working and touring environment, becoming one of the most sought after pop producers for the likes of Taylor Swift, P!NK, Troye Sivan, and MØ - and that’s just in the last year alone. In person, however, Antonoff seems to laugh off his ongoing creative outputs, telling me he spends most of his time eating and watching Netflix, “I just don’t know how things get done.”
Rollercoasters are a recurring theme in Antonoff’s life work, from references to the Rolling Thunder throughout ‘Gone Now’, all the way back to ‘Rollercoaster’ from Bleachers’ first record, ‘Strange Desire’. These odes to the ups and downs of life, a universally relatable sentiment, encompass the Bleachers sound in a nutshell. When you listen to any Bleachers music - in your headphones, in a car, anywhere - it sounds big. And it is big. Go to a live Bleachers show and at some point in its duration you’ll likely get yelled at by Antonoff to “fucking get off your seat and jump!” and you better oblige him. And literally, it’s big to the point that there’s two live drummers who create a wall of sound, plus a live saxophonist who brings the distinctive Bleachers sax lines to life.
But the music itself is created in an environment very far removed from the big, Springsteen-esque live Bleachers show. It all comes from mostly one room, a home-built studio where he works with long-time trusted collaborator Laura Sisk, his sound engineer who works with him on every project, and about whom Antonoff speaks with a level of enthusiasm that she reciprocates. When speaking via email, Sisk shared, “I’m such a fan of Jack’s productions, because every production decision he makes always serves the song.”
Serving the song is at the core of Bleachers music, and the core comes from the deepest parts of Antonoff, which tell stories of his childhood, coming-of-age, and his home. Antonoff compares creating these very personal stories to writing a message in a bottle and casting it out to sea, and when people relate to the sentiment, that’s what “makes you feel less alone on earth.” It’s that feeling of relating to one another that has created something entirely unique. “I gotta get myself back home soon,” runs as an internal monologue throughout ‘Gone Now’, a recurring motif often spoken aloud by Antonoff himself, or Camila Venturini, who Antonoff used to represent another version of himself, repeating lyrics and phrases throughout the album as a mantra.
Over a year has passed since ‘Gone Now’... and did Antonoff get himself back home? On the ongoing journey to get himself back to some form of home, Antonoff has built an entirely new home - a safe haven for everyone, where he, his band, and his fans are all welcome. It’s an unconventional home, one which is always on the road, never in one place for too long, but one that provides a welcoming space for creative expression and enjoyment.
“There’s a reason I see myself in a million faces,” Antonoff sings in ‘Everybody Lost Somebody’, and he’s right, there is a reason. It’s those millions of faces that relate to the lyrics he sings at every Bleachers show, hearing the messages in a bottle he's cast out to sea, and each other feeling a little less alone in the world.
While Bleachers were in New Zealand supporting Paramore on tour, we spoke with Jack Antonoff about ‘Gone Now’, his fanbase as a reflection of himself, and what “secrets” he has planned for 2018…
COUP DE MAIN: I saw you spent some time at Laneway Festival in Australia earlier this week, watching your "favourite band” Wolf Alice. Did you enjoy their set?
JACK ANTONOFF: They’re the best rock band in the world.
CDM: Did you also get a chance to see Amy Shark again?
JACK: I didn’t see Amy’s show, but I love Amy - she opened on the whole U.S. Bleachers tour.
CDM: How has the Paramore tour been treating you? Have you been enjoying watching them every night?
JACK: Yeah, I love them. I’ve known them for a long time because my last band, fun., they took to Europe for the first time. I’ve known all those guys for a while, they’re just the sweetest people. Hayley’s one of the great front-people, she’s just brilliant.
CDM: “I love making records and then taking them on tour,” you tweeted recently - how has ‘Gone Now’ changed over time for you since releasing the album a year ago?
JACK: It’s changed massively. I believe that making an album is half the process. It’s not like when you make a movie or write a book. Once you finish, you give it to people and it’s done, there’s no space where you relive it with them. When you make an album, it’s just part of the story, because then you go on tour and the people who care about the album, they come and you celebrate it together. It’s so different for everyone, so it’s not just that you’re surprised and interested in how the songs reach people; it literally changes. It changes the meaning of the songs for you. Songs that you thought were potent for reasons X, Y, and Z, become totally different, you hear them through someone else’s ears. The funny thing about writing songs is you think you know exactly what you’re doing but sometimes when you see it in someone else, you realise you were talking about something totally separate. It’s really powerful, so I have a lot of respect for that side of it. When I’m making records, I know that that’s only a piece of it.
CDM: Lyrically, what song on 'Gone Now' resonates the most with you now, a year on from its release?
JACK: Right now it’s a song called ‘Foreign Girls’. It changes, because you write trying to capture your whole feeling of being you in one album, and so in any moment in time that shifts. Right now, that one really feels-- maybe it’s because I’m far away from home, it just really feels like a part of me that’s floating.
MY FAVOURITE SONG ON ‘GONE NOW’ IS…
CDM: Your first single for each of the Bleachers albums seems to work as the mission statement for each era - from ‘I Wanna Get Better’ to ‘Don’t Take The Money’. Is it a conscious decision that the mission statements are the first singles?
JACK: Yeah. I see it as a house. So I think the first single is the front door, some songs are the basement, some songs are the attic. I don’t want to… it’s fine to shock people, but you don’t want to confuse people. Especially not if I’m inviting them into an album, and I feel like a first single is an invitation to an album, so you want it to be a mission statement. When you get to [the album], it shouldn’t be the best song, it should just be the front door. It should be the space that is inviting, because there are certain songs that are very uninviting. Songs like ‘Foreign Girls’ or ‘All My Heroes’, things like that, even songs like ‘Everybody Lost Somebody’, it’s a lot of intensity. So you just think about who you’re trying to reach and how to reach them, and this album - not all albums, but this album - was one I wanted to invite people into. It’s also subconscious. I felt that way about ‘Strange Desire’ too, where you just know that this is the song you want to play for the people first.
CDM: Is it just like something in your gut?
JACK: Yeah. I guess part of wanting to play something for someone first means that it is serving as some sort of mission statement.
CDM: We loved your curation of the ‘Love, Simon’ soundtrack. Was ‘Keeping A Secret’ a song that you wrote specifically for the film? Or was it a piece of Bleachers back-catalogue?
JACK: That one I wrote specifically for the film.
CDM: After seeing the film?
JACK: Yeah. I’ve never written from anyone else’s perspective, and I don’t think I ever will, but what interested me about the movie is, I’m not in high school, closeted, or being extorted by some other kid, but the idea of ‘Keeping A Secret’ - you live with that your whole life. Essentially, the movie, to me, is so much more than the specific story of this kid, it’s the story of first love, but also the story of not being able to share yourself fully with the world and how painful that can be. In Simon’s case, it’s because he’s closeted, but everyone has that version. So I wrote ‘Keeping A Secret’ about my life, but it worked for the movie because I related to the movie. I did that with a lot of the music for the film, I’m not someone who can step into people’s shoes, that’s not what I’m good at. Some people are great at that, some of the greatest songwriters of all time - Bruce Springsteen writes beautiful songs about other people. I’ve realised, at least right now in my life, that I’m my most effective when I’m just telling my stories very honestly. And this movie, the reason why I wanted to work on the soundtrack was because the first time I was asked to do something where I saw it, and I thought, ‘Oh, this makes me want to share more about myself.’
CDM: What was it like co-writing ‘Alfie’s Song (Not So Typical Love Song)’ with Harry Styles?
JACK: Harry was in the studio, this was a while ago, and we were just fucking around. It was me, him, and a girl named Ilsey Juber, who’s a brilliant writer. Harry’s lovely. We were just messing around with melodies and ideas. We didn’t write that whole song, we just wrote parts that became that song. But he’s just absolutely lovely, and a very good writer. I like the fact that ‘Alfie’s Song (Not So Typical Love Song)’ came from such a random place. When I started writing for the movie, I remembered this thing I had messed around with Harry and Ilsey on, and I went back and I was like, ‘Oohhh, I want to change these lyrics and the verse and mess with this, make it my own.’
CDM: What made you want to choose The 1975’s ‘Love Me’ for the soundtrack?
JACK: I love The 1975, I’m a big fan of theirs, but that one the director put in. It was very collaborative with the things that I wanted to do and the things the people making the movie wanted to do, and finding a space where it all worked together. I believe in soundtracks, I grew up when fucking ‘Reality Bites’ came out. Every time you put on that soundtrack, every song brings you right back to a moment in the film. So there was an opportunity to make something that was really connected but also stands on its own as an album. That’s what I thought about a lot when I did it.
CDM: It’s been rad seeing some videos from the 'I Miss Those Days' remix competition that you held - you teaching the dude piano to ‘Goodmorning’ was truly heartwarming to watch. What have those experiences been like for you?
JACK: It’s been wonderful. I love anytime I get to have experiences with the people that-- it’s funny, no offence to present company, but usually the people I get to meet are mostly press, or the people that get to ask me questions. If I go to a show and maybe after the show there are a lot of kids, you don’t really get to sit and talk to people, just because, life - [but] you want to. Twitter is its own sort of hellscape. But when I’m writing songs, that’s who I’m talking to, the kids who listen to it. When we did that thing and a few people actually came backstage and actually for an hour got to sit and talk and do something, whether they learned a song or cut some material, that didn’t matter, but actually spending time with the people at the show, you learn so much about the writing and the performance, you understand why they’re there more. It’s a very informal atmosphere, and those are the people I want to stay closest with, and ironically they’re sometimes the people I get to spend the least time with. I want more than just the stage time, there’s more to it.
CDM: I’m a big fan of the ‘Home Now’ volumes - your fans are the absolute best, and so, so, creative. What was it like, receiving and listening through those CDs?
JACK: Unbelievable. When they made ‘Home Now’, that was the single most important moment in the album cycle to me. It was very powerful. Writing songs is like putting a little message in a bottle. You write a song because you’re scared you’re the only person in the world feeling what you’re feeling. You don’t write a song because you had a great sandwich, or because you’re happy. So when you write a song you feel very alone, and then you cast it out into the world. Then if people hear it and they connect to it, or come to the show, it makes you feel less alone on earth. But they took it a step further and they remade the album with their words on the songs, so it was sort of the ultimate feeling, like I’m not wandering the earth alone.
CDM: And they pressed it on vinyl. Like, what kind of dedication?! I didn’t even know you could press one-off vinyls.
JACK: I cherish that vinyl. There’s a huge mutual respect there. If you’re very honest with people, then you can attract people that can be honest right back, and you’re sharing something that’s not bullshit. I’m not someone who-- the way I am on stage isn’t how I am everyday, but there’s more to it than that. What I’m saying in the song is what I’m saying everyday, so I think it’s important, I’ve done this long enough to realise that depending on what you share, that’s what you get back.
CDM: Do you think that a musician's fanbase is a reflection of themselves?
JACK: I hope. I’d be honoured if that was true. I think that you create a culture, no matter who you are. No matter what you do, you create a culture around yourself and then you have to live within that culture. You should create something that makes you better, and challenges you, and doesn’t bore you or make you feel less than.
CDM: Both ‘Strange Desire’ and ‘Gone Now’ feature ‘I’m Ready To Move On’ reprises, as the second to last tracks on each album. Has it been a conscious decision to always have these feature on Bleachers albums?
JACK: When I was making the second album, it just felt-- because the album process is so intense, and you go through so many phases, and I sequence the albums sort of as I write them, so they go through all these things, so by the time you get to the album, it’s almost like I want to close the door. To me, the perfect album is a documentary of a moment. It can’t go on forever, it has to stop. It can’t be too short, but it can’t be too long, so the idea of ‘I’m Ready To Move On’ on both albums, I was like, ‘Okay, fuck it, I’ve said everything I want to say, now I’m ready to move on.’ And I wanted it to be this palette cleanser. It’s not a song-song, both versions of that song are these sprawling--
CDM: They feature bits of previous songs.
JACK: Yeah. It’s almost like, when someone dies in a movie and you see their whole life.
CDM: It sounds really familiar when you listen to it.
JACK: There’s bits from the whole album that are in there. So it’s almost this final piece, and then I always have one song after that’s like a palette cleanser or something. I don’t know if I’ll always do it, but the past two albums I made I felt compelled to.
CDM: What did you end up doing with Jack’s Room?
JACK: It’s in my parents' driveway, which is funny. It sits ten feet from where it used to be permanently. The whole project was so bizarre and wonderful for me. I don’t know, if I have a family, maybe I’ll have a house and we’ll make it like a treehouse, it’s something that I would want my future kids to see, maybe I’ll give it to them. Maybe I’ll blow it up, I don’t know. That would be the most fitting, poetic thing, to blow it up.
CDM: On the ‘Gone Now’ tour in America you wore the album cover costume. Was this another way to help bring the album to life in a live setting?
JACK: I liked how on the album cover, I imagined myself dead. So that’s why I was in this big regal outfit, like this portrait of someone that wasn’t here anymore. So on the live show I wanted to bring it to life, so I liked the idea of starting the show in the outfit, and I didn’t move. I just stood there and sung the first song on the album, and was lifeless. It was this weird energy because I would be totally still, but the crowd would be excited because it was the first song. Then it would go black, I’d rip it off, and kind of come to life. I liked it working backwards on the album, where it’s the live show you want to come up from the dead. That was the theory behind it, but maybe I just looked like a fucking asshole in a costume, I don’t know.
CDM: Very important question, when are you planning to come back to New Zealand and do your own headline show?
JACK: As soon as possible. I’m so happy to be here now, but I also just want to headline so much.
CDM: I want to see you in the full costume, and the full show!
JACK: Tonight feels like an introduction because it’s the first time Bleachers has ever played New Zealand. I’m so happy to be here with Paramore, I love them so much. I can’t wait to be back here.
IF I HAD A DAY OFF IN NEW ZEALAND…
CDM: We were massive fans of the ‘Terrible Thrills’ concept, with all-female artists doing renditions of the songs from ‘Strange Desire’. Is the ‘Terrible Thrills’ album something you’d consider doing for ‘Gone Now’?
JACK: I’ve been working on it. I’ve started. I hope I actually finish it. But I love doing that.
CDM: You have a lot going on! I have a lot of respect for how you manage to do so many things.
JACK: I feel like I just eat and watch Netflix, so I just don’t know how things get done. Work is funny, because when I think about work I get stressed out. When I don’t think about it I just do it, and I think that’s nice because anything I’ve done the past couple of years I really wanted to do. If I made a list of the things I’m supposed to finish or whatever it would feel shitty, but if I just did it, it would feel exciting. I think that’ll be kind of what I do until I run out of steam, which could happen tomorrow, or when I’m 100.
CDM: ‘I Miss Those Days’ really captures the essence of youth. In the song you sing, “We talk about getting older / But there's so much we haven't done yet.” Do you think that we, as humans, have a tendency to want to grow up faster that the rate we actually age at?
JACK: Yeah. I think that everyone gets youth. You don’t have to work for it, so when you’re young you don’t care, so you want to be old. Not everyone gets to be old. I think the whole challenge of being old, or older, in different moments of your life is to live in it and accept it. There’s fucking 60-year-old motherfuckers out there that don’t have ‘old’, they’re just acting like kids. I have so much respect, which is a part of writing that song about the idea of actually being an age. We’re so obsessed with youth but everyone gets it. Then you look at Bruce Springsteen or Barack Obama, these people that are like beautifully older.
CDM: Ellen DeGeneres just turned 60!
JACK: Ellen is 60. Or Nelson Mandela. There are these people that just fully move into the next phase of their life. I’ve always envied that, ever since I was a kid.
CDM: Do you feel the age  that you’re at now?
JACK: I don’t know what the fuck I feel yet, but that might be because I’ve been writing so much. When you write a lot, you sort of drift out of the place you’re in. For me, writing is so much of a rubber band between the past and the future. You’re imagining who you’re going to be, and who you wish you were - to have something to work towards, and you’re pulling from all the information of your past. It’s rare that I write from the present, because I’m literally looking so far back or so far forward, and trying to put the two together. It’s good for songs, but it’s weird for feeling in your own body. My friend said to me the other day, she sent me this picture of her when she was a kid and she said, ‘I’ve always been me.’ I think she was joking around because she had a funny look on her face, but I realised I don’t feel that way. I thought that was a beautiful thing to feel and maybe a luxury of someone who gets to exist in a space, because my work takes me out of the present.
CDM: Another line I really love in the album is from ‘I’m Ready To Move On / Mickey Mantle Reprise’ where you sing, “Why wait a minute to tell her I love her?” Do you think it’s important to encourage people to express their love when they have the chance? Sharing emotions and feelings is such a vulnerable thing for people to do, I think it scares them sometimes.
JACK: Always. I write about that a lot. It’s so much easier to be cynical. It’s so easy to define yourself by what you don’t like, but it’s so much more inspiring if you define yourself by what you do like, or do love. Often I feel like we run around telling each other who we are by being like, ‘I hate this, I hate this song, I hate that shirt.’ It’s so much more inspiring when someone’s like, ‘I love this, I love him, I love her, I love this song.’ Think about music. We live in a culture where all we talk about is what we don’t like. That’s why I love playing shows. No-one comes to a show cynical. I don’t need everyone to love me, but when I play a show, we’re all there because we all care about the same body of work. There’s so much cynicism, especially nowadays for obvious reasons, but I’m just trying harder and harder to care, and follow the things that bring me joy. It’s tough.
CDM: You were signed to Fueled By Ramen in the fun. days, a label with kind of a built-in fanbase because of the brand itself, and obviously you brought the already existing fun. fanbase from before you signed. Has the experience for you changed, now on RCA with Bleachers?
JACK: I’ve always wanted the same thing, and I’ve always made clear that I would never end up somewhere-- labels are funny, because they’re selling you, so you better make sure that they’re selling the part of you that you’re willing to sell, otherwise it gets really messy.
CDM: You seem very sure of yourself, in relation to your music.
JACK: I’m not sure. I’m sure of what I want to put out into the world. I understand. If I wasn’t, the label might say, ‘Hey, this will sell more if you put a trap beat on it,’ or, ‘This will sell more if you dress like this.’ It’s not their fault, and they can’t be blamed - they’re in a different business. There’s a Venn diagram - there’s art and there’s business, and we cross over in this teeny little sliver of the two circles where we both want to put music into the world. But the rest of it is hard to relate so you just have to be very clear on why you’re doing this and what you want to say to people before you enter that side of it, otherwise you’ll get crushed. So I always knew what I wanted Bleachers to be. Same thing with fun., we made a fun. record before we even signed to a label. My old band [Steel Train] made tonnes of albums without labels, so I got lucky - I didn’t think I was lucky at the time, but I realise now that I’m lucky that I got up on chairs before anyone was paying attention to figure my shit out.
CDM: What else do you have planned for 2018?
JACK: A lot of secrets.
Bleachers’ album ‘Gone Now’ is out now - click here to purchase.
Order a physical version of our covershoot and interview with Jack Antonoff with a CDM x Bleachers zine - click here to purchase.
Watch the ‘Alfie’s Song (Not So Typical Love Song)’ music video below…