summer hits

How Jack Antonoff Found That Moment of Musical Clarity on the New Bleachers Album

“All these things are designed to be little worlds in themselves and read into. Every Easter egg is probably real.” — Jack Antonoff

Since starting Switched on Pop back in 2014, we’ve had countless hours of conversation with artists such as Taylor Swift, Lorde, and Lana Del Ray that have been soundtracked by the production work of Jack Antonoff. When we wrote a book about 21st-century pop, we devoted a chapter to the song “We Are Young,” by his band fun. He is, going back those seven years to our launch, one of the artists we’ve most wanted to interview — and so, on the occasion of a new album by his band Bleachers called Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night, we finally sat down with him to hear about how he approaches his own work.

Charlie Harding: It feels like you’re working something out in the album’s sixth track, “Stop Making This Hurt.” Can you bring us into your mindset on that song?
The idea of working something out is kind of a hallmark for me. In my work, if I know something, it’s pretty hard to write about it. That’s why there are so few songs about how events have turned out. I’ve got all the facts. The same thing goes for myself. I know certain things about myself, and they’re deep and important, but I don’t feel the need to explore them. The things that pull me to write are when I feel something that scares me or fills me with joy or mystery. Those are the things you write about because you want to figure it out.

My work can come off like a diary entry. It’s still all about me, but I use that as a device. This time, I started looking around and seeing so many people in my life struggling to hold joy, and this terror to want a better life. I had that idea — “Stop making this hurt, say good-bye like you mean it” — in my head forever. And I didn’t know where it was going to go.

But then, I just started to carve it up. There’s Daniel, my best friend. And there’s Jimmy, who’s Lana (Del Ray). There’s my father. The second verse is about my mother and my sister and the political climate and just did a quick overview of how everyone is in their own little mess. And then I get to be the narrator who says, “Stop making this hurt and say good-bye like you mean it.” So you’re like, “Fuck it, we have to exist and find joy.”

Charlie: Your music puts me into a specific place and time each time I listen to it. Is there a particular space this song is placing you?
References are good because they can give you some armor to get off the ground. I remember moments of thinking of Dexys Midnight Runners or Talking Heads’ phrasing or Tom Tom Club or the way Television recorded drums. You start in these places because it can be too terrifying to just say, “It’s gonna be amazing, so I’m gonna do it.” You have to have some language. But then you shed it pretty quickly. When I feel like something is ready or done is when I just kind of hear myself in it.

And so, I got this song, and it’s quickly litigating all the figures in my life with this gospel-like chorus, casting judgment and hope, and then wraps all the way around into the bridge where I realized: This is kinda the journey. I want to hear the band. I want it to sound like the drummer is about to fly off the cliff. I want the horns to be going back and forth on the bar to feel like they’re just like some drunk guys who play better than anyone. So you have all these things. And then, you’re just waiting until you hear yourself in it. You wait until you hear that thing that scares you a little bit.

Nate Sloan: The music video is set in a New Jersey diner. And yet you sing about breaking free of New Jersey. Can you tell us about that relationship? There’s love for Jersey but the need to break free. Where is your home in this song?
It’s a complicated place. The root of all this is that I’ve just been drifting more and more toward where I’m from for a long time. The place you’re from is so deeply baked into how you write and how you see the world. And it’s not about nostalgia. It’s not about going back. It’s about recognizing where you’re reporting from. A perfect example of that is if you think about New York city music. If you think about the way the Strokes sound like they’re reporting from the center of the world. If you think about New Jersey music, it’s reporting from an inch outside the center of the world.

I started to realize these parallels of how I feel about where I’m from, how I grew up, and how I feel emotionally right outside there, but not there. One of the opening lines of the album is, “I’m here, but I’m not.” Jersey’s a special place because people from there don’t have a small-town mentality. It’s an inch from the biggest, best city in the world mentality. And how does that feel as a kid? There’s a lot of Springsteen in the sense that when I was young, when I heard Bruce’s music, that was the first time I said, “Oh, I not only know the little landmarks he’s talking about, but I know this feeling.” And it gave me a sense of pride for this place. There’s this get me out of here, I won’t die here melancholy mixed with huge hope. That is a culture.

It’s this blend of deep melancholy ’cause you’re not invited, because you’re out of the vibe — and then deep hope because you want to get there. It’s the opposite to New York city music, which is way less hopeful, but sort of just like two fingers up, welcome to the center of the world.

Charlie: You frequently cite Bruce Springsteen’s songwriting advice of “blues in the verse, gospel in the chorus.” You got to collaborate with Bruce for this album on the song “Chinatown.” How did that come together?
It was very organic. There’s no world in which I would have been able to say,I want to do a song with Bruce,” and then sit down and figure out that song. He and his wife Patti are very important people in my life. I was over there one day, and we were playing each other music. And I had the demo of “Chinatown,” and they’ve got a studio, right there. So we’re all in the studio. Everyone was messing around on it. I didn’t think a ton about it until a few days later, when I was listening back. He had sung on the chorus, and I was like, Jesus, this really works.

Charlie: The album has a live quality. Was there something that you were trying to reach for the sound of this album?
Yeah, this is the big pandemic story for me. I’ve always been in this interplay, playing live and making records, and I’ve always liked bringing in live stuff, but I’ve never felt like, Oh, the record needs to sound like the show. They’re very different expressions, and they should be. All that really matters, all that you can have your hands on, is you can go out, and you can play your ass off, and you can find your audience. And if you find your audience, you can be with them, and you can grow, and the audience can grow. But if you’re focused on that, that’s the deepest version of this work. So there was never a sense that that could go away ever.

Obviously the pandemic was incredibly emotional and tough on everyone for a lot of reasons. But in my corner of the world, one thing that was wild was, Oh, that can be taken off the table. So it created this sense of: I wanted the band in the room. I said to my band, “Hey, play like your head’s on fire — play like it’s your last day on earth.” Those words hit very differently when we actually didn’t know when or if we were gonna get to play again. So a lot of the sound of this album, specifically “How Dare You Want More,” is the guys in the room playing with it with the knowledge that we don’t know when or how it will ever be the same.

Charlie: One could say, “Jack is a real traditionalist. He records albums. He focuses on projects. He records organic instruments. He makes references that are not necessarily nodding to things that are happening right now.” But you seem to have a perspective that this is clearly the best way to produce music, both for the art and for its commercial nature.
I think you’re right. I’m not shut off in some crazy traditional place. I’m pretty aware of everything that’s going on because I think it’s important to be. There’s a difference between reaction and conversation. A few years ago, I started hearing all these electronic things everywhere, which I loved. And then I would sit down and make music. This was the beginning of the phase when I was making Norman Fucking Rockwell with Lana, where both of us were like, Man, these sloppy live-room drums and this 12 string sound so cool. It wasn’t like, Fuck everyone. It’s a natural thing.

And look, production is a whole universe, and it’s fascinating and beautiful, but at the end of the day, it’s inferior to this feeling that it’s meant to design, right? You could intellectualize and talk about why, how, what you’re using. At the end of the day, it just doesn’t really matter because the sum is meant to be so much more than the parts.

Nate: It’s a fascinating insight into the gap between the creative process and then id and ego. The creative process, and turning it into something that can be analyzed and discussed rather than just having it be. That’s the line that we’re constantly walking on this show, where we’re like, “Are we reading too far into this?”
No, it’s designed that way. All these things are designed to be little worlds in themselves and read into. Every Easter egg is probably real. And if it isn’t, then it still is because I see writing and producing as two phases.

There’s the trying-to-find-it, almost free association of production and writing. And then, at some point, you see the framework of the album, and as soon as you see that, it’s phase two, and it’s immediate, and it hits you. Usually, when I’m working with people, you’re so tapped into each other it just hits you at the same time. “Oh my God, this is it, these are the through lines. This is the sound. This is how this sound is connected to this emotion. Blah, blah blah.” And that’s actually the harder phase because then you know what it is, and you know what’s missing, and you know how to finish it.

The reason why I bring this up is because both of these processes leave little room for meditating on what’s happening. All of that happens after. There’s so much lightning in a bottle when you’re just trying to find ideas, there’s nothing to even talk about. You’re just throwing stuff against the wall and you’re like, Huh, that’s weird. That’s interesting. And then one day, you sort of wake up and realize you’re further along than you realized. That’s when you’re like, Oh my God, we’re in this.

It was also this idea of leaving New York, going into Jersey, going home, taking someone you love home, going home to find the future. I saw it as something visual. I saw this doorway, me with all this baggage, and I got obsessed with this idea of like, you can’t take it all. You can’t leave it, all the pieces you choose to take are going to define your future. It was so easy for me to gravitate toward darkness and sadness, but I loved this doorway kind of knocking at the door, the next phase of your life. ’Cause I was like, there’s so much joy. There’s so much joy in that concept, but there’s also so much anxiety. And that’s right where I wanted to be.

Charlie: Could you describe that moment making this record?
Yeah I had “Chinatown,” “45,” “How Dare You Want More,” and a song called “Secret Life.” And then it was sort of when I started to get this song called “What Do I Do With All This Faith,” which is the last song, where I was like, “Fuck, I get it.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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