First Dates

I Went on a First Date with Jack Antonoff and It Got Deep

Sharing a ridiculous ice cream sundae with New Jersey's pop mastermind.

by Lauren O'Neill; photos by Imogen Freeland
30 May 2017, 9:30am

It's a Monday evening and I'm sat in east London's premiere ice cream parlour – the Dalston branch of delightfully named Creams, if you must know – perusing the menu, where each concoction looks like something a very drunk unicorn may have sicked up. I'm waiting to meet Jack Antonoff, an unassuming, glasses-wearing New Jersey-ite who also happens to be one of the most innovative minds currently working in pop. Maybe you know him from his band fun., particularly their 2011 single "We Are Young" (and its Jersey club remix soundtracking 2015's almost inescapable Now I'm Mad meme). Antonoff has since written for acts like Fifth Harmony, Taylor Swift, Lorde, Carly Rae Jepsen and Sia and is about to release a second album, Gone Now, under his solo moniker, Bleachers.

Since its inception, Bleachers has been defined by qualities that, combined, result in the very best pop music – bombast, sincerity, emotional intelligence, bravery. Gone Now builds on this and expands it: its production is more extravagant than its 2014 predecessor's, its depths of feeling heavier and more challenging. I've always identified with music that offsets big emotions with even bigger sounds, and with Gone Now, Antonoff has done just that. It acknowledges what's often the undeniable fact of sadness – be that personal or about the world – but never plays down the sound. Though the feelings expressed are sometimes dark and complicated, they're always framed in a high-stakes pop largesse. In return, pop needed someone to take it seriously, and Antonoff is incapable of doing anything else.

After a few minutes, he arrives – tired with jet-lag after doing a full day of press, but every inch the thoughtful presence I'd expected (and more articulate than basically all of my actual first dates) – and we order something nuclear-coloured. Over the sundae, we talk about his home state of New Jersey, his punk and emo roots and the life or death business of making pop music.

Noisey: I guess the first question I always ask when I go on any date is: what's your sign? Are we even compatible?
Jack Antonoff: Aries.

Me too. That means we're really incompatible.
Well right, 'cause you're probably like me, a big asshole. Are you very rude, stubborn, must-be-your-way?

Really stubborn. Quite abrasive, and also really immature and impatient.
Same! This is great. I haven't been on a date in five years!

I was gonna ask – what did you do on your last first date?
It was a blind date, we went to a restaurant called Blue Ribbon, and I haven't dated since.

What about your first ever date?
Ever? I went to see I Know What You Did Last Summer, remember that movie? We made out in the theatre. It was great. I was 14.

I don't think I ever went on any dates when I was a teen.
Yeah I grew up in New Jersey so we'd go to the movies or go to the diner and you'd, like, call someone on their landline and actually make a point to get there.

There's so much cool music from New Jersey, and you can hear that in your music.
Lotta emo from New Jersey.

It's true! Lifetime!
Lifetime are some of the greatest ever. Kid Dynamite are Philly, but that was really important to me growing up. I saw Lifetime before they broke up. And because I grew up with all that music in New Jersey, I thought everywhere in the world was like that. That if you were 13 or 14, every Friday night you would just go and see all these bands. And I did my first tour when I was 15 years old. On the first stop, I think in Virginia, I realised that what we had in New Jersey was very special.

Do you think the feelings in your music have changed now that you're older, or whether the early punk, hardcore, emo sentiment is still there for you?
A lot of it is there. I make records the same way I did when I was a kid: in a room in my house. I mean, now that room is filled a lot of great recording gear, but it's still the same concept – I don't go to the studio. I've always just wanted my records to sound like someone at home, dreaming of making records, instead of just someone in a big studio, doing everything that way. You go to a hotel and it doesn't remind you of something important. But at home, everything screams at you. I took a lot of shit from my childhood bedroom – remade the wallpaper – and created a room in my apartment that felt as "me" as possible. To someone it might just be like, a picture or a toy, but they don't let you escape you.

How long did the record take you?
Two years.

So, tracks one to 12, two years?
I don't write more than is there. I never write 30 tracks and then pick my favourites. You want it to set you on fire. It's a gut feeling, and you know right away if the song matters or it doesn't. And I feel like every song I write is the best song I ever wrote. You want to be pushing forward. And stuff that doesn't feel like that, it's not inspiring to work on. You know you're not trying to write a lot of songs, you're trying to write an album.

I felt like that with this record: it's very cohesive. Listening to it feels like – and I hate this expression – I'm going on a journey.
No it's meant to! I really believe that. I think it's so sad and disappointing – and it happens a lot lately – where it doesn't sound like an album, it sounds like 12 songs trying to be singles. I always think about it like a house: you need your front door, you need your basement, it needs all these different layers to it.

Then the touring starts.
I feel very passionate to "hand-deliver" it live in a way. I used to think it was so stressful to write about such very honest things and have to relive them every night, but now I see the album-making as a deeply stressful, powerless process and touring as being able to celebrate it, no matter how dark it is.

Yeah, when I think about my best experiences of live gigs they were always when I was way younger at punk shows, because they're so visceral.
That's how I was raised playing, like that's the feeling when I do shows. Half of me feels like I'm in Kid Dynamite or something and I'm just like diving in the crowd and getting everyone to sing everything. Also it's sort of that quality of growing up in Jersey, like: 'nothing exists beyond the show'. Once you start up there, that's all there is. There's no yesterdays or tomorrows, it's just that.

It's cool to hear that background in heavier music meet pop, with what you're doing. The emotion of it.
That's what I grew up on. It's like, say something worthwhile. Talk about what's actually going on in your head, cut the shit. And then make the song sound as exciting as possible. Make it an overload of all those emotions that you're putting into it. Even if it's euphoria or joy, just like, take it all the way there. It was always a reaction to anything "middle" in all the scenes I grew up in. Just like, "they don't talk about real shit on the radio, we're talking about what it's like to be a kid right now." And I'm talking about what it's like to be like, a semi-weird adult right now. That's what this album is all about. Loss and anxiety and depression, trying to move forward. Not carry too much, not let go of too much. It's just this whole fucked up balancing act. And I don't know if it's what everyone's experiencing, but it's worth saying. And those people, that scene and those friends, gave me the confidence to write and perform like that. Because before it was for the world, it was for 200 friends.

You know, the storytelling element and the cohesion between tracks on the record reminded me a little bit of Paul Simon.
Oh really? He's a big influence, that was playing a lot growing up. I love how he just says what happened. He's not overly poetic, he's just like, "this street, at this time of day, you were wearing that," you know? "This bridge, and this time of summer,", "you were tired." It's all just right there. And I feel like I have a lot of lines like that, say, "I was 16 in the van driving myself on tour." And it's very specific – here's where we were, here's what it felt like. And when you go on to the next part and continue telling the story, you're bringing someone somewhere with you.

Other than the record, what stuff are you currently working on? Can you say?
Bringing the record into the world has been my biggest focus. I just have a bunch of exciting projects around the album that I can't talk about yet because I don't want to spoil them. Because it's not like you put the album out and it's done, you have a year and a half – shifting it, redefining it. And then a bunch of work with some other artists that I'm in the middle of.

Having read Lorde's New York Times profile, it seems like the two of you are well matched in terms of the way that you approach emotions and pop. You both take it seriously.
Oh it's dead serious. It's no joke. It's a gorgeous genre that has saved people's lives. It's everything. I only surround myself with people who get that. And who want to make the documentary of their life, and make these timeless albums that speak to a period of their lives. And respect and honour everything great about the genre, and constantly re-define it. It's dead serious. Once I was with a producer and he said something like, "oh you know, what we're doing is not rocket science," and I left. And I was like, "then, that's what you're doing." What I'm doing feels crazier than rocket science because I can't even tell you what it is, it comes out of the blue. It comes together and you can't define it, you can't figure out why it's emotional, why it makes you wanna weep or dance. It's an absolute wonder of the world.

It's important to have all those different facets. And it's interesting that you can take yourself into different situations with this music but know what it's saying all the time. I just think that's a really great hallmark.
It means a great deal to me. Because that's when you know it's ready. And you can feel that.

It feels like a fullness.
I never understood people who didn't know when to finish, because I was always like, 'that's the one thing I know for sure.' I know nothing along the way, but when it's done, I get this feeling. It sometimes takes two years and sometimes it's two days. And it just sounds like the thing you thought of in your head.

Did you have any specific songs on the record that took a while?
Yeah. "Hate That You Know Me" took forever. It was such an important song to me: when you pass by a mirror you can ignore it, but when you love someone, sometimes you hate that they know you. Because you can't run from everything you are. It's so much easier to be alone sometimes, in certain respects. It took forever because I would do it, show it to people close to me. They'd be like "that's cool," but… I could see that it wasn't translating. There were too many effects on it, the drum was wrong. I had it written forever, but it took me so long to put it in the right "outfit".

That's the song that I "got" straight away.
It might be the song you like only on the hundredth listen. There's a song called "I'm Ready to Move On" which is purely meant to be discovered way later. And it's a bizarre journey, it takes a very long time to really wrap your head around it.

I find it fascinating that that was the intention.
Yeah, I just wanted that for some songs. I always wanted "Hate That You Know Me" to be this weird combination of tight pop song and really sad sentiment. So you go on these journeys when it's right. But when it totally isn't right you just have to listen to that part of you that wants it to be done, but knows it could be better.

That must be sometimes frustrating. I guess the thanks comes when you do get to play in those room.
That's wonderful but when you're in the room alone making that album, there's very few moments when it can all make sense. Most of it's confusing and scary. I want to make what people deserve, which is the most honest version of yourself. Really document yourself over a time, make that record, have it look and sound and feel like what actually happened. That's a tall order. You have to really not compromise to get that right.

And I suppose often the best way, or the easiest way is just that simplicity, and just speaking to the most sincere and easiest way of saying it.
It's so hard because I always think that I have better maps and better ideas, and there's no way. You just try, and wait, and work out production until you hit that feeling. And you do or you don't – if you don't, you just don't put it out. It has to be something that sounds like it really came from your soul.

Thanks Jack, that got pretty real.

'Gone Now' is released on Friday 2 June via RCA.

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