Written by Erin Mathis
The first time I saw Bleachers I was at The College of New Jersey, seated near the top of a balcony section, in a theatre with red velvet seats and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. I was disappointed with the venue space, since it was so physically restrictive and unfitting for a rock show. However, when the band got on stage, the room transformed. Jack Antonoff came out with high energy, jumping around and getting the crowd riled up. I was completely caught off guard and blown away by his level of excitement and passion. After that show, my respect for Antonoff doubled. He is a talented writer, drummer, singer, performer, and after his formation of Shadow of the City, apparently event organizer as well. I was thrilled to get the chance to speak with him about his recent projects and insightful opinions of the music industry.
I’ve been a fan for a long time, and I saw Bleachers when you guys played last year at TCNJ. Something that surprised me, was that it felt like total rock ‘n’ roll concert. I was not expecting the jumping around, and the heavy drums and high energy that you delivered. What made you want to go in that direction for your live performances?
I think because I grew up in New Jersey playing in a lot of garages and fire halls, when I was learning how to play live it was all about energy, and I’ve never let go of that concept. You know when you’re in the studio or when you’re writing, it can sound all different ways, things can be really heavy or really soft or whatever it is, but when you play live you have to create a mass of energy.
Definitely. And you’re not just a singer, you’re a songwriter, and you’ve been collaborating with a lot of artists. In 2014, you put out songs with Taylor Swift, and then just recently, you worked with Sia. Can you talk about your experience working with her?
I love Sia, she’s just a really brilliant artist who has a vision for all things, from the song, to the video, to the performance, she kind of sees the whole picture. And she’s very fast. When we worked on that song for her last album, I think we were in the studio for maybe just a couple hours. We just started throwing a few ideas out there and then before we knew it we had a song. She got the melodies really quick, and the lyrics really quick, and it was really simple. And we’re close in real life outside of work too.
Do you have any idea of who you’d like to work with next?
Honestly, when I think about who I’d want to work with I always just think that I hope it’s someone I didn’t even know existed, and that they’ll totally change my life because of the way they see music and art. You know it’s easy to look at what people are doing out there and think, “Oh, I’d love to work with this person,” but the person I’m most excited to work with is the person I didn’t even know about.
You recently tweeted about song structure, and how sometimes a song can be forced into a certain structure and it ruins the song. Is it tough for you to make decisions while you’re writing songs about what the song is going to turn into — if it’s going to be a typical song with a repeated chorus, or something more organic that fits the feeling of the song?
It’s not usually that tough because I kind of let the song dictate it. A lot of times, even if I just have like one part, or just an idea, a lot of songs kind of guide you to what they are. When I wrote that online, what I was really referring to is like, as someone who writes alone and puts out records, I’m also a member of this community cause I’ve worked with other people too, and so I see a lot of things that happen and I get to experience both sides of it where it’s like I get to do the part alone, just me, only thinking about making something interesting, and then I also have to listen to the part of like thinking about radio and song structure and what’s going to work for a mass group of people. And I think a lot of great songs never happened because they didn’t fit into a formula.
Meanwhile, a lot of people’s all-time favorite songs are like “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I think song structure is something that we just decided — is what it is. And then, people who write songs and work with big artists, they have a lot of impact on what goes on the radio, and what goes on the radio is what’s popular, and what the world hears. I think this concept that things have to fit into neat little packages for people to like it, really just plays into this idea that people are stupid, and they’re not stupid. People are brilliant, and when a lot of people only have access to certain things, it’s important that the things they are given are of quality. And the only real test of “quality”, is when you hear a song, and ask, “What did it make me feel?” Oftentimes it’ll remind you of things happening in your own life, and “Do I want to hear it again?” because you want to immediately revisit that feeling.
You’ve been very open and honest with your fans about your struggles with anxiety and depression. I think it’s really important for musicians, or celebrities, or just people with a large reach to talk about mental health, not only to start discussions, but to let fans and people know that their not alone in their struggles.
Any struggle in life is all about not feeling alone. For example, if you were the only person that when you hit your elbow, it hurt, and no one else had that experience, you’d feel terrible about it. And all these things in life that aren’t perfect, when we know that everyone else goes through them, they become manageable. And a big problem with mental health in our culture, is that we don’t discuss it. So people who have panic attacks or people who suffer from depression or anxiety, always their first reaction is that they’re a failure, that they’re weak, and that they can’t talk about it or share it, and that leads to them feeling even more alone. For me personally, the more I learned about other people going through it, the less terrible I felt, because the more I thought to myself that this is something I can manage, no different from like — I’m a human being, I have to sleep, or I have to eat, that this was just part of the program. So I think that first of all, artistically, it’s a huge theme in my life so I talk about it because I have to talk about it, but beyond that, it’s really important to talk about because it reaches people, and because it matters.
Finally, let’s talk about Shadow of the City. Thank you for giving New Jersey another music festival. I’m from New Jersey, and I always have to travel to New York or Philly for shows. Also, I’m really excited about the lineup. Did you get to handpick the artists and bands that will be there?
Yes. That’s certainly the joy of the festival, is that it’s me sitting there looking through a list in my phone of my favorite bands that I would love to see in a festival. There’s no wild sort of algorithm, the way I look at it is if I could throw a party for a couple thousand friends, who would I want to play? And I’m from New Jersey, I spent almost my entire life there, and I know that feeling of all the best shows going to New York or Philly. And I hope that resonates with people from New Jersey, that it’s just sort of for them.
Your old band Steel Train is going to be playing the festival. Is it really just a one time performance or could there be a possibility of the band getting back together?
I always want to be part of the festival, in the flesh, and I don’t want to headline it every year as Bleachers because I want it to have a life itself outside of me. So I started thinking, well, what do I do? And I was just like, man, Steel Train, we’re a New Jersey band and we haven’t played in years. And I wondered what would happen if I just texted everyone, so I did, and I was like, “Hey everyone you want to play a show?” and everyone was like, “Yeah, let’s go do it.” I’ve been recording and making records like crazy, and I didn’t know if everyone would just kind of want to come together and do one show, but they did, and we’re definitely not getting back together because I’m well into the next Bleachers album and working on all that, but I like the idea that we can just get together every once in a while for any of the fans that have known us for the ten years that we were together.
So this is the festival’s second year. I imagine that it’s pretty difficult to organize an entire festival. Any lessons learned from last year or things that you’re hoping to make better for this one?
Yeah, this year is all about looking at last year and asking, “What worked?” and just going full force with all that stuff. So, having one stage was awesome because everyone got to see everything, and we had charity dunk tanks, and that was incredible because it was for charity, but also just a blast. And bringing in as much local food and drinks and all things based in New Jersey. You know, a lot of festivals are just about getting together and seeing music, but this festival is about more than that. So yeah it’s just about looking at all the things that went well and figuring out how to do them even better. I want people to trust me with this thing and know that whoever plays and whatever is going on with it, that it’s going to be a great time.
Catch Jack Antonoff’s Shadow of the City in Seaside Heights, NJ on Saturday July 18. Click here for tickets.