Bleachers’ Endless Search: Jack Antonoff on finding friends, fans and faith in the future
As a songwriter and producer, Jack Antonoff has searched for pop’s most memorable moments. Now, with his new album as Bleachers, he’s searching for something bigger.
Jack Antonoff is someone who you would assume has everything figured out.
As one of music’s most notorious songwriters and producers, he’s helped artists such as Taylor Swift (1989, reputation, Lover, folklore, evermore), Lorde (Melodrama, Solar Power), St. Vincent (Masseduction, Daddy’s Home), Lana Del Rey (Norman Fucking Rockwell, Chemtrails Over The Country Club), BROCKHAMPTON’s Kevin Abstract (Arizona Baby), The Chicks (Gaslighter) and Clairo (Sling) turn their musings into many of the most influential albums of the streaming era, earning him a position amongst Billboard’s Greatest Producers of the 21st Century. Then, there are projects like Bleachers, fun., Steel Train and Red Hearse; avenues for past and present creative release that feature Antonoff somewhere amongst their primary members, if not as their sole leader.
As we talk from Electric Lady Studios (a regular haunt-slash-second home for Antonoff, housing the creation of many above records), however, you begin to work out that Jack Antonoff is similar to anybody else; someone whose questions asked far outweighs questions answered.
Over the course of our conversation, it becomes clear that Antonoff is the type that’s always seeking clarity, not so much to answer or explain something, but more to ponder about the reasoning for something or understand its existence and being. If he feels like he’s explained something particularly well, he’ll pause answering the question to note down what he just said on his phone. If he finds a ‘spark moment’ - a creative breakthrough - in his songwriting or production, he’ll take time later on to decipher its reasoning: why making The Lakes (on Taylor Swift’s folklore) simpler brought out its beauty, or why a Joni Mitchell cover makes perfect sense amongst the Chemtrails Over The Country Club vision himself and Lana Del Rey were attempting to create together.
Bleachers (Antonoff’s ‘solo’ project, created in 2014 while touring with the now-defunct trio fun.) presents an opportunity for Jack Antonoff to do what’s best known for, but to his own experiences and observations. It’s an opportunity to investigate his “tiny corner of the world” - as he calls it - through music that’s a reflection of his own journeys, rather than those of the collaborators so often associated with Antonoff’s distinct touch.
The project’s debut album Strange Desire, for example, dissected the grief and sadness of Antonoff losing his younger sister when he was 18 years old while questioning the hope that often lingers in the presence of someone’s darkest moments. 2017’s acclaimed Gone Now further prosecuted this loss, but in a way that emphasises its ongoing presence even decades later, as he seeks the driving forces that influence his constant being. “It changes your relationships, it changes how you see yourself, the way you see your work,” he explained with the album’s announcement. “That loss is a filter that goes through your whole life."
Bleachers is a musical sanctum where Antonoff can be his ‘vulnerable’ self, where he can pull apart and examine what defines his every feeling and every action. Often, that leads to pathways of intense grief and sadness - just look at the project’s aforementioned discography - but with Bleachers’ third album, Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night, Antonoff is no longer looking into trauma for answers, per se. Instead, he’s exploring what to leave behind as the now-37-year-old opens a new door and moves forward into a hopeful next chapter of life.
Released July 30, Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night is an album that captures a period of darkness and desperation, intertwined with the soundtrack of the search for hope that blooms from dark, desperate moments. It’s an album that clings onto dear life as Antonoff enters a bout of powerful self-reflection; an album that, when played in a particular order, depicts Antonoff claw his way from the depths of near rock-bottom, fuelled by a sense of hope (“unearned hope,” he elaborates) and faith (“not in God, just… faith”).
Don’t Go Dark - the first song written for the album, sparked from a session with Lana Del Rey - recounts Antonoff at the depths of that darkness; a “literal account of the end of a relationship” that aches with the despair and hopelessness synonymous by things falling apart (“Do what you want, just don't go dark on me,” he sings). From Don’t Go Dark, however, Antonoff climbs, powered by the sense of unearned hope that he plucks apart through triumphant horns and subtle, stripped-back serenades alike.
Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night questions as it continues, its creator attempting to make sense of the hope that fuels him. How Dare You Want More asks why it’s so hard to have more control in life. Stop Making This Hurt asks why you can’t move forward when you carry so much baggage behind. The album-closing What’d I Do With All This Faith? asks what its title suggests: What do you do with all the faith and power you muster together when you come out the other side of darkness? Where does it go?
Jack Antonoff is someone full of questions, someone that is on the same quest - the same search, the same journey - as everybody else out there trying to understand. Sure, he might’ve searched for (and found) some of the most influential (and most sung) lyrics in pop music’s last few decades, but now, he’s searching for something bigger - much bigger.
The search for Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night:
Jack Antonoff is used to a complex, easter egg-filled album roll-out, having worked on pivotal records from Taylor Swift and St. Vincent in the past. Bleachers, however, is usually more straightforward - until a global pandemic comes into play. Antonoff opened 2020 by announcing that a new Bleachers record would arrive that year, but it wasn’t until November when the album’s first tastes were revealed. Now, 18 months following the first tease of ‘B3’, Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night stands in its place, the final product being a testament to years of work.
How long after Gone Now did you begin writing this record?
I’m always writing, but there’s a big difference between writing and writing an album. You’re always writing with the intention that things will find their place, but you can have a million songs without having an album. To me, the album is a wider perspective - a whole vision.
I was always writing after Gone Now, but I didn’t get that flash moment where I saw the album - and began properly making the album - until the top of 2020. That’s when I really started to see it, and then overnight, you go from the place of trying things to this place of you seeing it. It’s like when you’re doing a puzzle and you can actually start to see the picture. You can really focus; you know what’s missing, what’s right, what’s wrong.
Was there a particular catalyst moment that triggered that?
Not at all. I was on my bike, riding through New Jersey by the beach where I go and I had my headphones in, listening to the record. I remember being like, “holy shit, I understand what I’m talking about and I understand the sound of it all." I finally heard the cohesive thread between it all, both sonically and emotionally.
Does your method of creating music change when you hit that moment?
Yes, everything changes. You slip into this… you just feel so thankful. You’ve got this hope that you have found what your album is and all of the crazy work that’s gone into it. You also know what you have to do when you hit that point. Before that point, you don’t know what you have to do, so you’re trying… you’re thinking, you’re chasing ghosts… and then all of a sudden, you know what you have to do.
You’ve talked about Don’t Go Dark being the first song you wrote on the album…
That’s correct, right when I started to see the vision.
How do you feel like creating that song guided the rest of the record?
It’s really a bit of a mean song, but it’s about having enough of something, and to be at the end of something is wanting to break through into hope and joy, you know? "You run with the wild then cry on my shoulder like a little child, do what you want just don’t go dark on me." It’s not I love you; it’s not I hate you. It’s you’ve got to get off me. I can’t be tethered to these things anymore that are cynical; I can’t be tethered to anything that’s holding me back from breaking through to the next phase and finding something new. I can’t sit with this anymore.
I felt that personally, I felt that culturally, I felt that around Trumpism in America. It’s like, "guys, this is boring - nothing grows from this." I mean, these people grow, but they don’t change, they don’t evolve, they don’t find more joy, or faith, or love. They just sit there in their cynicism.
I wrote that song about someone in my life who I felt that way about, and as I said, it wasn’t “I love you”, and it wasn’t “I hate you”. It was “I can’t be tethered here anymore, I need to break free.” It became a big sentiment of the album; it suddenly turned into being more than about me, my friends, my family and the way we tether ourselves to things, but all about kicking down the door that starts that.
The search for hope:
Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night is a desperate album. Born following a relationship’s public end, the album captures Antonoff at one of his lowest points, questioning everything that surrounds him, questioning everything that defines his psyche and being, everything that underlies each one of his lyrics on both this record and his last two. As such, the album sports Antonoff at his most vulnerable yet hopeful, something best resembled on Don’t Go Dark, the album’s aching, catalytic moment. “I'd never written a song like this,” he tells Apple Music. “I just didn't know what else to do besides write that song. It's probably the angriest song I've ever written.”
So when you were starting this record, how were you feeling at the time?
In a bad place. I always find myself writing well from a place that’s not hopeful and not horrible, but one step above horrible, when you want hope, but you’re not necessarily holding it; you’re not feeling hope, but you want it. It’s a really interesting place to write from because what it does is that it opens up all these different avenues. Where am I going to find it? How am I going to find it? Where have I been stopping myself from finding it? What areas of my life that I’ve consciously or subconsciously limited myself to not find it?
You start asking all these questions, and it’s really scary and really frustrating looking at all the sandpaper in you and trying to see what the fuck is going on. It’s a great place to write from because you’re writing about things you don’t fully understand about yourself. It’s really where you get some of your best stuff.
Do you feel like writing this record helped you better understand those things you don’t know about yourself?
It’s set me on the right path, I think. You write from so far in the future that it’s not like I’ve answered those questions, but what matters to me with this album is that this album is about trying to break through into the next phase of your life and figuring out which parts you can and can’t take, and not settling for this cynicism that can plague you.
This album is me asking all of those questions; those are the thoughts that I’m prosecuting about myself, my friends, my family, my tiny corner of the world. It doesn’t end with me figuring it out; it ends with the song called What Do I Do With All This Faith? because I’ve always thought of myself as someone who doesn’t necessarily have God, but I’m spilling over with faith; a lot of this unearned faith and unearned hope, right? Why is it there? Why do you just keep feeling it in the face of so much shit? I love it. I love feeling it. I love finding it.
The question of why someone deserves hope… that’s a question a lot of people would love to answer.
What’s delusion, and what’s human? Are they connected? Why move on? Why not move on? There are all these things happening at the same time, all these questions.
What questions do you feel like you did answer with this record?
The biggest question I answered is that does anything come from hanging onto all of this pain? No. You lose yourself if you try to exist beyond some of the pain and grief; the answer is always no - it’s always going to be there, and having a life beyond it isn’t going to make you any less of a writer. It isn’t going to make you less of a person; it’s actually going to make you more interesting - more compelling; someone able to find joy and actually grab at it, rather than assume that it’s their burden.
The search for the moment:
There’s an infamous moment in Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana documentary, where Jack and Taylor Swift write the bridge to Getaway Car - on her album reputation - on the spot. It’s a spark moment, a moment that everyone from Lorde to Lana have described while working with Jack, and something that every songwriter craves. It’s a rare occasion to write something that’s instantly good and rarer still to write something that feels like the defining point of an album. It doesn’t come around often, Jack admits, but when it does, it’s a feeling unlike any other, and Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night has its own moments.
There’s a lot of powerful moments on this album; the chorus of Don’t Go Dark - which we talked about earlier - being one…
Lana helped me write that one, and I remember singing it together and being like, “ooft, that’s good.”
You obviously create a lot of music. That instant moment, that instant “that’s good” situation - is that something that happens often?
Extremely rare, but when it happens, it’s so good. Everything you feel… you just feel so much peace for a minute and everything makes sense because you’re doing the thing you’re always trying to, but you can’t replicate that moment. You don’t know what starts it, when it comes or what it does, you’re like, “oh, I got one! I got one!”
Don’t Go Dark felt like one of those moments. It just brought everything together. It’s about being at the fucking end of something but not at the beginning of something else. It’s a very interesting space: I’m at the end of something but not at the beginning of something else; I’m just fucking tired.
Do you think there’s a particular moment - a particular song - on the album that captures the theme and sentiment of the album the best?
A lot of them do, but I think songs like 91, How Dare You Want More and Chinatown really captured this unearned hope. All the verses and all of the stories are so dark and create such a sad lens, and then they all come around to this flickering hope in the face of it. That’s the hallmark of the album; here we are, here’s what is going on, here’s my life, here’s my world. What do I do with all of this space?
91 was going to be my first guess to that answer because it seems to be a song close to you, judging from your social media and other interviews. What are you so drawn to in this song?
It’s the biggest moment - the biggest statement piece - of the whole album. It moves quite quickly into everything; it’s almost clipped onto the album like an overture. It’s very othered too; it doesn’t sound like the rest of the album.
It’s 91; a war is on. The first verse. My mother was in the war - the Gulf War. “She’s here, but she’s not.” “Just like her, I’m not at home.” Then, there’s the second verse - the break-up. “Just like you, I can’t leave.” “You’re here, but you’re not.” Those tethered concepts… you can’t pull away from all that darkness, you know? “Someone new walks along steals the weight from your war,” - that’s your personal war. “Flickers of light and you're sure that you have been here before.” “I know what I'm not, but looking at you, I can't leave.” Uneared hope. It’s this big statement from all these dark stories, and then out of nowhere, you’re just filled with all of this faith. It just feels like the whole album in that one song.
The search for home:
If there’s one thing Jack Antonoff is perhaps most well-known for aside from his music, it’s his dedication to New Jersey. He’s lived there for (mostly) his entire life, and often speaks about the relationship he holds with the area as a source of calmness and grounding, especially following extended time away while touring or writing. New Jersey has a presence on every Bleachers album, but on Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night, it feels particularly pronounced, and not just because the record features one of the state’s biggest musical icons in Bruce Springsteen.
I wanted to talk about those horns on the album and the connection to New Jersey there.
That would be Evan [Smith], who has played sax with Bleachers for years and has played on almost every record I’ve produced, too. He’s one of the greatest horn players of our time.
There’s a real Springsteen, E Street energy those horns bring to the album.
It’s very New Jersey, horns playing melodic but sad lines that are just yelping out. Screaming horns playing these big, sad lines.
We’ve joked before about where I live - Perth - living in the shadows of Sydney and Melbourne here in Australia, but you talk quite similarly about New Jersey and its relationship with New York.
They’re places that are othered. They’re places that are often the butt of the joke or places where the mythology about them is bizarre and weird and overlooked, and if people care to mention them at all, it’s usually in some shitty way. But that’s where the dreamers are. That’s where hope is built; this idea of unearned hope in the face of people telling you to feel hopeless.
The way I feel about New Jersey is amazing. Of course there’s hope in New York City; of course there’s going to be hope in places like that, but there are also those places that are overlooked, and there’s a different kind of hope there, a different kind of dreaming. It’s such a centrepiece to my soul, my music, and the lens through which I see the world. I love it. I see it, I get it, it’s who I am and I know what it sounds like.
Is there anything you feel like you’ve learnt about your connection to New Jersey throughout the creation of this record?
It’s really pushing the boundaries of what the band can do and this idea of what modern New Jersey music is. There’s this interplay with New York City… the sound of an album that travels from New York, over the bridge to New Jersey, and leaves something behind here… It’s my way of holding this torch - holding this musical torch - that I not only grew up with but that I love, and will continue to love, and bring that into the future with me.
What does that future look like?
I’m not too sure. I think that will unfold itself and I’m fascinated to imagine what it looks like. You can’t know, and that is what’s fascinating about this line of work: You can’t know. You can try, but it’s foolish to try… you just have to let it suck you up and take you.
The search for his musical family:
There’s a saying out there in the pop music world that no developed pop act is more than two degrees of separation from Jack Antonoff. His list of collaborators reads like a GRAMMY Awards performance schedule built by pop’s diehard fans, spanning from arena-selling mega-stars to those far smaller, those occupying the niche fringes of pop music’s ever-changing sound. There are a lot of unexpected collaborators within that list, the Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night has some of the strangest of them, including English novelist Zadie Smith and Australian legend Warren Ellis, best known for his work with the Dirty Three and Nick Cave.
Zadie Smith helped on 91, correct? What was her input?
91 took a very long time to sound right. I had written it, but then Zadie Smith helped me reframe the lyrics and get them right, but it wasn’t ready. St. Vincent wanted to go with strings, and then Warren Ellis started playing the strings. It had to go through so many phases to get exactly to the place it needed to be.
Zadie is definitely the most unexpected collaborator you work with on this album and definitely one of the most unexpected of your career. What did you take away from working with her?
That she’s a genius. Thank God that you’re alive and thank God you do your work because it’s all a gift. That’s how I feel about a lot of people I work with: thank God you were born and thank God I get to use some of your time.
You’ve talked about Don’t Go Dark having that connection to Lana, but she’s also featured - you hear her vocals - on Secret Life, too. Can you tell me about that song?
We were finishing Norman Fucking Rockwell and I was telling her this idea of a song that was a little more conversational. We had this crazy role reversal moment where she did the thing I usually do to her and said, “just say that, that’s the chorus”, and then it just clicked. It was one of those moments - “oh fuck, we’ve got a good one”, and like I was saying before, it was just so exciting. That was Don’t Go Dark, but then Secret Life… I didn’t write that one with her, but I wanted her to be this voice that suggested this other character I’m talking about.
It was one of those rare moments when I’m working with someone and the two things bleed together because I usually keep them very separate.
Warren Ellis is the last collaborator I wanted to talk about. What presence does he have on this record?
He plays strings on 91. That song was me, Warren [Ellis], Zadie [Smith] and Annie [Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent], and it felt like I was trying to tell this story; trying to launch into the album with these people who I think are just some of the best artists in the world. They just push me up, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.
That’s the only song Warren plays on, but he played a huge part in making it how it is. That sort of unhinged energy he brought on the strings was matched by the way my drummer was playing… this tension in the music just felt all connected.
He seems like a very particular collaborator. How did he initially become involved?
I literally just ran into him in the studio. I was in one room; he and Nick [Cave] were in another room. I think they were mixing Ghosteen. We just hung out and played through the records. That’s how it usually happens.
It’s been a few years between Bleachers records, but within that time, you’ve worked with some of music’s most brilliant and acclaimed songwriters and musicians. What have you been able to take away from working with some of these musicians and apply to this record directly?
Nothing too direct, but I think it’s more seen in the sense of being around people who are vulnerable, people that aren’t cynical and have such deep belief in the world that you see that in yourself. You see it and it grows; the more you have these people in your life, the more emboldened you feel to be your own self. Surrounding myself and working with people who see this work the way I see it… it becomes less delusion and more a way of life.
When you’re holed away performing and producing… it’s weird… you’re almost out there alone, and then you meet people who see it the way you see it and wow. It’s very, very, very, very rare to find your people, but I love them so much and that’s why I love the Bleachers audience so much. Against all odds, we see something the same way, and that’s something we can hold - together - and create a really intense relationship.
How do you feel like having that connection helps fuel your songwriting or production?
I follow my voice the way I’d tell people to follow theirs. That there’s that thing… that tiny glimmer of something that is so far but so near that you need to chase it.
The search for his audience:
Despite its negatives, there’s something beautiful in stan culture. The coming together of (mostly younger) people with a shared passion is a powerful thing, especially in music, where it shapes everything from charting positions to festival line-ups. “The future of music are the fans” is a popular saying, and it’s one that rings true - there’s no one else more qualified, thanks to the sheer passion they exude even without being on salary. Antonoff is an infamous central figure in numerous ‘stan groups’ (see: the if-you-know-you-know PowerPoint Presentation), but for Bleachers fans, the dedication is unmatched - and growing incredibly quickly.
Many people see Bleachers as more of a solo affair…
I think people see it as a solo affair because they have to contextualise me in the different kinds of work I do, but Bleachers is more of a band recording of almost anything else I’ve heard out there in a long time. Half this record is basically why, but the fans know that - Bleachers people know that - and that’s who I’m talking to.
Do you write music to purposefully strike a particular person or audience rather than just going for something for the masses?
I don’t mind if it’s massive and I think the band has actually gotten quite big in America. I just know who I’m talking to, which is our audience. Anyone can come in, but I’m always talking to them, so if I put something out there, I’m just looking for my people. It’s like that feeling when you walk into high school and you’re like, “who the fuck are all these people” but then you see one person that’s different and you’re like, “that’s my friend.” Doing promo or throwing stuff out there is just looking for your people because I see them and they see me and that’s it.
If you build that connection, it lasts longer than… anything else.
You’re investing it for a lifetime.
Exactly. To get back on track, the point I was going to make about Bleachers being more than just you is that I know that this record was very much built with the band in the absence of touring. What encouraged you to do that?
We couldn’t go play live. We didn’t know if we’d ever play live the way we - the way I - needed to ever again. It made sense to me for the band to come into the room, and we were just going through something together. We were musicians that couldn’t do what we do.
It became something I needed, which I didn’t know I needed for these songs. There’s a lot of darkness, but there’s that flicker of hope in there, and the band became the sound of that. They became the machine pushing me forward, so every time I would tell a dark story or something, the band would be playing their fucking asses off - they were unhinged - and that makes those stories feel like they’re not as dreadful. That’s the story of the album. That’s the story of the band.
How are you feeling about the prospect of live shows coming back in the near future?
I’ll be there when they say it’s the right time - I’ve got a tour, and when it’s the right time, I’m going to play the fuck out of it. I’m just going to show up for my audience when it’s okay to do it, and I know I’m not going to be first, but I’m not going to be last - I’m going to be right in that sweet spot when it’s good and safe. I think that’s September in America, and I hope it’s soon in Australia too.
One last question for the fans. Is there going to be a Terrible Thrills accompaniment to this record?
I think so, but that’s always something I look at last, after I’ve released the album and toured it and truly understood it. I see the Terrible Thrills kind of as the bow at the end of the time period. When something’s been fully defined by both myself and the audience, only then is it time to say, “okay, but what if we do it differently.”