Jack Antonoff of Bleachers, fun. & Steel Train fame is a different kind of juggler. With more than 15 years of touring and writing music under his belt, he’s now releasing his own debut album with Bleachers. You’ve most likely heard their wildly popular tune ‘I wanna get better’ but there’s so much more to Bleachers than you could possibly wrap your mind around. They’re vivid, they’re genuine and they’re all the things you’ve ever wanted to please your ears with. We caught up with Jack and he’s most definitely a refreshingly special kind of special.
FAULT: Now that it’s been a bit more than a year since you first started releasing music as Bleachers, can you tell me how 2014 was for you? You kinda had a lot going on as a band.
Jack Antonoff: It’s been absolutely amazing. It was really exciting, a bit terrifying as well. But then again, the best times in your life are when you’ve got different feelings happening all at once.
You’ve basically been in bands your entire life. Started out with Steel Train, then fun. and now Bleachers. Is there something specific that you took from each and encompassed musically in Bleachers?
I think I’ve been touring for like 15 years now with different bands, so it was more like going on a journey that keeps shifting, changing and redefining what you do. It’s constantly about challenging yourself, taking what you know and making it vastly different. Somehow.
You also started to write the album for Bleacher while on tour with fun. How did you manage both? It sounds both physically and mentally challenging.
I don’t know, it was weird, I was never able to do that before. Anytime I’ve been on tour, that part of my brain shuts off, but for some reason, with this process I was able to do it. I’d wake up and be like in Japan, Malaysia, Europe or something, I’d just open my computer and start writing. Then I’d be on the bus or on a plane and start working on a beat instead of watching a movie. It would just happen like that.
I’ve noticed that you’ve got two drummers, as opposed to the usual one you’ve had so far. Did you always wanna go for a louder sound?
Well, the two drummer thing is always very literal because, when I made the album, I desperately wanted to find a bridge between synthetic and organic. So I would create a beat on my pc using all these synthetic sounds and then I’d want it feeling different so I’d play live drums on top of it. The album is made with very much these two elements, even like synthesizers and then guitars. So the drums are literally like these two guys and they switch off. One guy will do more like pads and one guy will play more live. They kind of complement each other in that way. So a lot of what happens live is a very literal translation of the album.
So it helped you not lose bits and pieces from the album while playing live basically.
Yeah, because I think when you create a live show, you do the best that you can to represent the album, knowing that’s it’s just going to go in a fucking different place anyway. Which it ends up doing no matter what.
Now that you mention it, the whole creative process that lies underneath releasing an album is quite challenging. You go from complete control to no control what so ever.
Yeah, it’s very weird. It’s what’s exciting, it’s what’s scary but it’s also what makes you feel very alive. To be in that sort of really exciting place of knowing that you’re handing it over and it’s gonna be redefined by people emotionally.
You’ve worked with synth-pop pioneer Vince Clarke of Erasure and Depeche Mode fame on your album. How did you come across him and why did you feel that he was the right person to reach out to?
I love him, he’s an idol of mine, he inspired a lot of my music and what he did with Erasure and Depeche Mode sonically is just incredible. I wanted those elements in the album, I wanted those pieces of nostalgia mixed with the future. I met him one day for a drink and I told him how brilliant he was for like an hour and we were never in the same room after that. Everything we did, I’d send him a song and he would send back ideas and I would cherry pick them and put them in. It was all very remote.
“I wanna get better” is currently one of your most popular songs. I’ve noticed that there’s a lot going on musically in it. Could you tell me a bit about your production process?
It’s very layered. I recorded some piano on my phone in Germany and then I started sort of pitching it and then I put these like big kind of drums behind it and it almost felt like a hip-hop beat. I thought I might give it to a rapper or something. But then, I put that low bass in the chorus and I was like nope, this is my song. And I had this idea in my head for I wanna get better and I was desperately trying to find the right song to put it in. And the verses, it all was sort of weird, frantic and choppy. Then it got even weirder when I started adding voices of people, just like people in my life, friends and family and thrown them all over the song. I did that a lot in the album. And it just started to turn into this thing that sounded like a sound I had in my head that I hadn’t really heard yet out loud. It just built and built and built and built. Took a long time. It kept slowly combating. Anytime something felt choppy I’d just add a guitar or when something felt too organic, I’d add some fucking synthesizer on top of it. I was just like constantly fighting with it.
Your album opens with Wild Heart and you’ve worked with Yoko Ono on the track. But you’ve done it both with and without her.
Yeah, two reprise. So she ends up on the later version.
What was the experience like, in both cases?
Well, the first version is one of the first songs we wrote for the album. I always knew it would open it cause it introduces the whole thing, it guides you in slowly and then smashes you in the face when the drums hit. And lyrically, the song means a lot to me, the concept of finding the best in the people around and not being concerned about death everywhere you go. But I had this idea that the album would just descend into this digital place, so the reprise of Wild Heart fully crumbles into all synthesizers and I kept hearing this spoken song type of thing in my head that sounded like Yoko. So finally, I asked my manager if he’d call Yoko and see if she’d come to the studio and do it. So she came in, I remember it was Christmas cause she was eating Christmas cookies. She went into the booth and just started screaming and talking and singing and making noises, like all these crazy stuff. I took home the file that night and found all these moments where she’d be yelling and then she’d be singing something really beautiful like “I’m ready to move on” and then keep yelling. So I just grabbed these pieces and kind of created the song out of her organic expression.
You’ve mentioned earlier that lyrically, Wild Heart means a lot to you. You seem to have this tendency in your songwriting to write something extremely depressing and then sprinkle some upbeat pop on top of them. Sometimes, I don’t even know whether to dance or start weeping. Was that your intent?
That’s how I see music. It should be both. I think that the greatest songs make you cry in your bed if you want or dance with your friends if you want. It’s the same feeling. Being super emotionally attached to a song that you cry or so excited by a song that you want to move. It’s the same thing. All my favourite songs do that. Springsteen does that too, it should exist everywhere.
Apart from making people feel confused when listening to your music (I’m absolutely joking), what’s your FAULT?
I can focus too much on stressful or anxious things. Also, I get really stressed out when people are sick. And I make them feel bad.
Photography: Miles Holder