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December 2020 / January 2021

Bleachers: Pop is not a dirty word

Jack Antonoff masters everything he turns his hand to. from his own genre-jumping forays, to helping his all-star buds sound their tippity-top best, he’s one of the most interesting chaps in pop.
Published: 11:56 am, June 08, 2017
Bleachers: Pop is not a dirty word

Jack Antonoff masters everything he turns his hand to. from his own genre-jumping forays, to helping his all-star buds sound their tippity-top best, he’s one of the most interesting chaps in pop.

Words: Jamie Muir. Photos: Corinne Cumming.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]I never wanted to be anyone specifically, I always wanted...” Jack Antonoff pauses, halfway through eating a breakfast of mango slices and pastries, and thinks. After adjusting his cap and gazing around the room, looking to pull together the words racing around his head, another direction pops into frame. “I think about this a lot, it’s not really an answer to your question, but it just reminded me of something...

“I feel like there are two different ways to be an artist and create, as in there are artists that make you want to be them and then there are artists that make you want to know them. For me, I never really loved anyone who was especially beautiful or slick and I just never wanted to be them. But when I grew up listening to Springsteen, I wanted to know him. He’s saying things that I feel and have felt my entire life but have never been able to put into words that I could understand. Or take The Beatles and the first time I heard ‘For No One’, which I think was the first time that I was heartbroken. I listened to it and thought, ‘Oh my God, everything I’ve been feeling for months about this relationship screeching to a halt - they just said it in three words’. I tried to sum it up in ten thousand words, and they did it in three.

“REM, and the first time I heard ‘At My Most Beautiful’, was when I was in love with someone, and Michael Stipe is singing about counting eyelashes. Like, If I said to you, I have this song that goes ‘I found a way to make you smile’, you’ll be like, who gives a shit? But the way he says it, and the music, and the fact that his voice is sort of dry and sounds like he’s just speaking to you. Those words you’ve heard someone say a million times - but in that one moment he manages to encapsulate every poem or sonnet or essay ever written about love in some of the simplest words ever written.

“That’s the magic. That’s pop music at its absolute best. I could go on for days about songs, writers, artists, painters, movies - like in The Royal Tenenbaums where Margot Tenenbaum gets off the bus and ‘These Days’ starts playing with everything else drowned out and in slow motion. Right there, the feeling of loving someone is perfectly captured. Or in The Godfather at the wedding where the old Italian guy is singing, and pure joy is captured. That’s the whole point, to capture these moments.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width="stretch_row
[vc_column][vc_single_image image="16137" img_size="full" alignment="center
[/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Like flicking through the emotional scrapbook we all subconsciously tie ourselves too, Jack Antonoff lives for those moments. Hearing that sound, that hook and that lyric at the right moment can change lives, and it’s an experience Jack has had time and time again. If ever there was a mission statement that could be etched underneath everything Bleachers is, then that’s it - an outpouring of the heartbreak, loss, dreaming and love we all long to explain, yet fly into time and time again with an unwavering inevitability. As Jack sits forward, slap-bang in the middle of London as he gears up for the release of new Bleachers record ‘Gone Now’, there’s a definitive sense that an undeniable crowning moment is on the cards. After all, it’s been three years since he unveiled Bleachers into the world with debut LP ‘Strange Desire’, and in the time since - it’s fair to say that things have changed.

“Very drastically,” notes Jack. “I’ve changed, the world’s changed, but one of the most potent shifts has been that when I made the first album, it was like very secretive. I made it, and nobody knew I was doing it or that something existed, so it was never made in conversation with anyone. This album is the first one that I’ve ever made in my life, where it was really a breakthrough to open up and have a conversation with people and not be all about me and the literal things going on in my life.

"pull" text="It’s not some romantic concept of being an underdog; it’s how I grew up.

“Things change when they start to mean something to people. You make this documentary of your life, which is essentially what an album is, and you have to work out how to tell that story and how to make it sound exactly how it sounds in your head. Working out how to make it a piece of you while making it a conversation to the people that it’s for - because an album is for people and not just like a therapy you can throw off a cliff. It lives beyond that.”

With ‘Gone Now’, Jack Antonoff is inviting you in for a conversation - one he’s been longing to have for years.

New Jersey is many things. A state that has more diners in one area than anywhere else in the world, home to a certain Bruce Springsteen and an underdog in the shadow of nearby neighbour New York - there’s certainly something unique about it. For Jack, New Jersey is more than just a home; it’s the very fabric of who he is as a person. It feeds into the way he talks, the way he treats people, the way he goes about each and every day and the reason why he can play to thousands around the globe and make music at every turn. It’s a part of a journey that has manifested itself even from an early age.

“I was always very passionate about expressing myself from feeling very misunderstood at a very young age,” reflects Jack, recalling a childhood where a passion for expression formed way before music ever took hold. “Like there’s a passion for music and putting sounds together, but that’s very different from that feeling of needing to express something because it’s burning out of you, and you have to say it because if you don’t then you don’t feel like you have any purpose on this earth. From a very young age, I always felt this need to express something, mainly around feeling oddly disconnected and desperately looking for a place to express it.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_video link="
" align="center[/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]If ever there’s a location to house everything Jack’s become, then it’s his bedroom in New Jersey. It’s where he first learned to love music when he was nine years old; where he’d retreat to listen to radio playlists of Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins spin again and again; where he’d sit trying to make sense of the world full. It’s a time also complete with tragedy, learning to cope with sudden loss and attempting to rebuild himself from there. It was in those moments where he discovered a punk scene bristling out of the New Jersey streets, one thrashing with a sense of community that Jack had never experienced before. If you want the epicentre of Bleachers’ beating heart, it can all be drawn back to here.

“It was the first sense of community I ever had,” notes Jack, taking a sip on his tea and leaning forward once again. “I didn’t have tons of friends at school so finding this community of people changed my life forever and it’s with me every day. It informs the way I tour, the way I speak to people, the way I make music! It’s something that sounds a bit Hallmark and cheesy, but my heart breaks for anyone who doesn’t get to grow up with something like that because to have your own little club where you can express yourself is really special.

“I hope secrets like that still exist, I know it’s harder, but I’m sure they do. It was such a well-kept secret until it wasn’t. And you were there, or you weren’t, and I think those experiences are more vital than ever nowadays, to have been somewhere...”

What made the punk scene in New Jersey such an uncompromising force was something only geography could ever have stimulated. Situated just a stone’s throw from New York and its world of bright lights, big names and countless evenings pulsating with snapshot memories to tide over for decades to come, there’s a natural reaction that feeds through New Jersey. Of being so close to the moment, yet so far away at the same time. That twist in the gut longing to be in the middle of it all, yet locked away from it. A natural underdog to the glamorous cousin grabbing all the plaudits. In a way, New Jersey may not be the artist people want to be, but the artist you’d want to know. Utterly captivating, its spirit is the sound of Bleachers and because of it, Jack as a whole.

That feeling he knows will always be there. “Forever” points out Jack, nodding firmly. “That right there is the story of New Jersey, to look out of the window and see New York in the distance and hear about all these amazing things going on, like Nine Inch Nails are playing a show here and the Smashing Pumpkins over there and I’m here. It’s almost more brutal than being a thousand miles away because you’re there, but you’re not there if you get what I mean?

“It informs the music, that feeling, it’s the sound of New Jersey and the sound of Bleachers. It’s not some romantic concept of being an underdog; it’s how I grew up. You’re right there, but you’re not there at all. You carry it your whole life, it doesn’t matter where you end up, there’ll always be that feeling of this is just not you, and you’re just visiting, you’re not from it. What I realise is, I think people that are from places where they spend their whole life trying to get away from it are actually some of the luckiest people, because then you actually get away. Then you meet people who grew up in the place you idolised so much, and you realise that they don’t have that fire because they already won.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width="stretch_row[vc_column][vc_single_image image="16136" img_size="full" alignment="center[/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The fire is constantly burning for Jack, lighting in those early days at Lifetime gigs in scrappy New Jersey venues and soaring through the shirt-ripping tides fronting Steel Train, the all-conquering jump into the mainstream with Fun and now into Bleachers. From grungy stages to the Grammys and now into a pop world of stadium-sized choruses played out in his own unique portrait, there’s one thing that doesn’t change about Jack. He’s the outsider focused on one thing, shaking things up good and proper.

“I still feel very outside of things, it’d be hard for me not to”, Jack elaborates. “Even when I work now with big pop stars, there’s always still that feeling that I’m the left-hand side of the sand box for them or something like that. It’s just something I take with me even now. Plus, a lot of my work is informed by what I think is wrong with something, I’m not there to be everyone’s friend, and I don’t want to dive right in the middle of it all - I want to come in and mess around with my own version of it.

"pull" text="Pop is such a beautiful concept that, like pizza, some people do it very poorly.

“I think pop is such a beautiful concept that, like pizza I guess, some people do it very poorly and there are things in my head that I then want to bring to it. So the only reason why I’m there comes from an outside perspective in the first place, like I was never meant to be there! When I was making hardcore when I was 15 nobody was ever like ‘one day you’re going to produce all these pop records’, but that’s what happened, even with Bleachers. There’s something incredibly reactionary about it all.”

The natural reaction is always the most interesting one, and with Bleachers, Jack’s gut reactions are laid to bare in the most sensational fashion. Working on debut album ‘Strange Desire’ in secret while the runaway success of Fun faded into time apart, it was a breakthrough that continued to unravel jaw-dropping views long after its release.

Jack looks back at that time as a realisation of the emotions poured into an album that stemmed its way through every decision and move he had ever made. “There was a sense of taking it all in. It was a really funny process that because I put it out and then I felt like there was just a steady build of people finding it and that didn’t stop for like two years. What started off as like a few hundred people at shows became a thousand, and then two thousand and then before I even knew it, there was this community of people who had found the record. Which is really special, because that’s what you dream about - connecting with people.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_video link="
" align="center[/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]In the time since there’s been shimmering detours through work with Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen and now Lorde (working on the latter’s album while piecing together his own next step) - and after all those experiences comes ‘Gone Now’. A continuation of Jack’s unmistakable knack for genre-bending pop supremacy, it lives in a realm that’s not afraid to open up and examine the fibres underneath.

“‘Gone Now’ is very much a documentation of the past two years of my life,” explains Jack, “but there are these elements that have been there my whole life too. It’s something I realised about making an album, that you have this knowledge of your whole life and those key events in it, and you constantly revisit them with a different lens. So I talk a lot about loss and the people I’ve lost - and that’s something you’re always revisiting at certain points in your life, but just with that different viewpoint on how it is affecting you at that moment.

“I’m always trying to find ways to say things. With ‘Strange Desire’ it was all about conversations with myself, whereas on this album... I can vividly remember walking down the street and looking around to see all these colours, the bright lights, people and all these grand things. You start to think, as you walk along, that every person you see has this story of hurt and pain buried within them - and not to sound humble or clichéd, but when I write, I think about one person the way I think everybody.”

From that breakthrough came ‘Everybody Lost Somebody’, an emotionally raw melting pot of infectious pop that underneath exposes the true depths of loss with an unwavering sense of clarity. It’s an honesty that resonates across ‘Gone Now’, an album that instantly pulls together a community before spreading its net far and wide. It’ll be playing at the late-night disco, in the bedrooms of countless thousands longing not to feel alone and it’ll be there ready to comfort for good measure too. It’s a realisation and snapshot of moving through life, learning what to take with you and what to leave behind, and how both play a part in every flick and move you’ll ever make.

“With ‘Everybody Lost Somebody’, that was one of the first songs I wrote for the album. It’s a very important song to me because it was the first time, like I said before, that I was actively in conversation with other people in my music, rather than just myself. It was a really big deal to write that song, to connect the dots more and speak to people directly. The album talks to people in the ways we all connect on, so it really talks specifically about loss and sort of this feeling of pushing through. How people do it and what keeps us going.”

Jack continues, fixing his hat and jacket as he pulls his thoughts together. “We all keep these big suitcases of baggage, and we can’t really carry all of it but we don’t want to let any of it go too. This idea of drifting through time and moving forward. Not getting too weighty with all your crap that you can’t move forward, but not leaving too much where you’re not yourself.

“That concept of moving on and deciding what to take with you - it’s all part of ‘Gone Now’.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width="stretch_row[vc_column][vc_single_image image="15900" img_size="full" alignment="center[/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]From the collective ‘Sgt Pepper’-tinged swells of ‘Good Morning’, the gospel wrappings of ‘Foreign Girls’, the New Jersey call-to-arms stomp of ‘Don’t Take The Money’, the crystalised sheen of ‘Hate That You Know Me’ or the chiming bells and whistles of ‘I Miss Those Days’ - ‘Gone Now’ refuses to sit still, and because of that lands as a truly special record. Feeding every itch and flourish which pops into his head, Jack’s next chapter is one that’s primed to cement his position as the man with his finger well and truly on the pulse of boundary-pushing pop. With a purpose.

“Making ‘Gone Now’ was this little two year period, which was my whole life,” explains Jack. “It could be over in 80 years, or it could be over tomorrow, and I wrote a lot of the album from that perspective, this sense that I won’t be here forever and I need to share these feelings. I have to capture these moments on tape.”

As the morning rattles on, Jack’s schedule continues to fill with worldwide dates and new projects bristling at every corner. While chatting, his first headline London show in two years sells out months in advance; work continues on his own festival, Shadow Of The City, back in New Jersey and in a matter of days Bleachers kick start a fresh run of headline dates around the US. Not to mention the mobile bedroom being transported around the country that allows fans to peer into the very floorboards where the seeds and foundations of Bleachers rose from. The question arises, how does Jack Antonoff feel about this non-stop schedule?

“Well, I enjoy making all the work,” answers Jack. “Putting on the festival is really inspiring, being in the studio of course too - there’s always that inspiration of what you want to do in your head, and then there’s your actual body and reality. That part I don’t enjoy, that feeling of being in a race that I can’t keep up with - you need to be able to relax and enjoy life outside of everything too, with real relationships you have with people.”

"pull" text="I want to feel less alone in the world, y’know?

Things are only set to get bigger, but that’s what pushes Jack each and every day. It’s all to pursue that feeling everyone gets in their stomach. To search for something more, have answers to questions that fly around everyday life and find solace in talking about the worries and fears that surround simply living. It’s in that purpose that Jack sees meaning and with ‘Gone Now’, it’s a conversation that gets its welcoming platform.

“I want to feel less alone in the world, y’know? I want to make sense of things. I want to feel” lays out Jack. “Like, when I put out ‘I Want To Get Better’ on the first record, it was a perfect documentary of all the bad things that have happened in my life and saying ‘I want to get better’ whatever that means to you. Hearing it back through people and hearing their stories, it makes you feel less like you’re meant to wander the earth alone forever. It’s powerful.

“I don’t share things I don’t question. I’m not worried about lunch or sleeping or anything like that. I am worried about the meaning of why we put ourselves through so much to try and connect to people, about mortality and how it informs every decision we make, why sometimes we feel like the weight of the world is crushing us and why sometimes we feel so light. There are things that really occupy my head which I don’t have answers for - and those are the things I want to talk about, to see what everyone else thinks.

“That for me is worth considering.”

Searching for the clues of life, Jack Antonoff’s journey as the outsider is essential. Sometimes life is hard, it’s painful, and it’s overwhelming. Bleachers stands as the hand outstretched, holding tight as the confusing tides of life come flying. Knowing Jack Antonoff is ultimately knowing that not having the answers may be the most dazzling place to be.


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