Jack Antonoff seems like he’d try to fix the washing machine, doesn’t he? He seems like his first response to a white goods malfunction wouldn’t just be to call in an expensive person to replace a minor part. He looks like he would at least have a go.
This was not a topic he discussed when he sat down with Popjustice for a chat, so if you’re looking for information about washing machines you’ll be disappointed. But in addition to knocking out Bleachers albums he has, as well you know, also collaborated with renowned warble-merchants like Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, Lorde and Sia, so it’s fair to say he knows what he’s doing on the pop front and if you’re in the market for a chat about that today is your lucky day.
We met in London on Jack’s third day of press interviews and, to his credit, he didn’t look like he wanted to cry.
Have you figured out anything about your new album that you didn’t know before people starting firing questions at you?
It’s not that I didn’t realise things, but being able to articulate it is easier. When you make an album you don’t have a clear vision, you’re just trying to make the sound that you hear in your head and document that moment in life perfectly. Which can be very abstract. Then when you’re done you can really sit above it and see exactly what you did and why you did it. It’s like getting older: when you’re 19 you’re doing all this dumb stuff, then when you look back on it, it starts to make sense. It’s really exciting to revisit things through a different lens — when you make an album you put your whole life in a funnel.
How much of this new album is based on your life since the first Bleachers album?
It’s an interesting combination. On one hand it’s a perfect documentary of the past few years. But the time period exists because of everything I’ve done in my life. I’m still talking about things that happened to me ten years ago, but it’s through the lens of right now. The album started with a song called ‘Everybody Lost Somebody’ 1 which is about the feeling of being on the street, seeing so much and coming to terms with the fact that everyone has a big sack of baggage that they’re dragging through life.
Do you think everyone does have baggage? Some people seem to have none at all, do they just not realise it?
Definitely. Everyone has ‘x’ amount of baggage. We’re all together, barreling towards the grand unknown, and that informs the way we live, treat each other and love. In life it doesn’t matter if we’re very successful, or any those things we get caught up on. All that matters is how you exist, how you appreciate people, how you treat people. It’s like I see people with big invisible suitcases and it feels like everyone’s going through the same thing in terms of carrying everything. You can’t drop anything or you lose all the piece of who you are. That’s what connects us all: we’re trying not to hold too much, or drop too much, and we’re trying to move on.
Some people have suitcases on wheels though. 2
They do. We’re all different, but we all have a version of it. No amount of money can change that.
There are some good “HEY!” moments on the album. What’s the power at the heart of a good “HEY!”?
I like found noises — sounds that just pop out. For me it comes from chopping up little bits, to have a visceral yelp of some kind, and I’ll sample them and they pop up and I make them part of the beat. Anything that’s non-lyrical — a “HEY!” or a “yeah” or whatever — are moments when I actually feel something. You want to keep that. It’s a big theme in my production in general, taking these very organic moments and making them part of something by strategically placing them around. It’s controlled anarchy. You want to invite people in, then shock them. That’s what pop music is: you open the door, you say welcome, they come into the house, and they’re like, “HOLY SHIT”. The best pop music doesn’t scare you until you’re already there.
You’ve talked already about ‘Don’t Take The Money’ being the ‘front door’ of this album.
I think a lot about the work as a house.
Which house-related elements do the other songs represent. Which song is the house’s foundations?
‘Everybody Lost Somebody’ — it was one of the first songs I wrote, and it started me off on a lot of concepts. You want the scary basement, the attic… ‘Foreign Girls’, for instance, is the attic which is very odd and beautiful. You want ornate rooms and plain rooms. You don’t stop until you’ve got something you want to live in. Not just something you could live in — something you want to live in.
Is it liberating when you work with other other artists and you don’t know or have to worry about what the other rooms in their house are like?
No, it’s tough! I don’t like to do it, and that’s why a lot of the stuff I’ve been doing with other artists has been full albums. I’ve been trying to work towards it and finally people are starting to trust me to do it. I’ve been lucky enough to work with artists who have it all under control so I don’t need to worry about it — artists I’ve done a song or two with are usually really brilliant people who see the whole thing but the truth is I’m more comfortable doing a whole body of work. I want to make albums! It takes a long time to make artists trust you with that.
I suppose it can also be a question of the label or management trusting an artist when they turn up and go “hey, I want to do an entire album with one person, and that person is Jack Antonoff”…
Once they [labels] have it — and when they say ‘it’ they mean the ingredient they think will reach everyone — they just want to go. I had that with my album. Once they heard ‘Don’t Take The Money’ and ‘Hate That You Know Me’ and ‘Let’s Get Married’ they were like: “LET’S GO!”. They were like, ‘we have a number of singles here’. And I was like, well, I love singles, but you have to have all of it. You don’t make work for the casual listener, you make it for the person who’s going to sit in their parents’ attic and listen intently and hear everything and pick up every word. And what’s great about pop music is that it can be that, but it can also work for the casual listener. That’s why Robyn’s so brilliant, it’s why Kate Bush is one of the greatest of all time. If you don’t have that thing that works for everyone it’s not really pop, it’s just secret music like indie or something like that. Labels are in a different business, you can’t be mad at them for it — you can sell a lot of something without it being beautiful or perfect, that’s been proven over and over again. So that’s why it’s up to the artist. That’s why I like working with a specific type of artist — one who’s unrelenting with this part of it.
[HERE’S THE NEW ALBUM]
What most of those artists have in common is that they seem to understand what it’s like to be an obsessive music fan. Do you think people obsess about specific songs and albums in the streaming era, when there are a thousand other things a click away?
But those people — well, you go to a Taylor Swift concert and they’re singing every single word of every song. You might think “she’s just some artist on the radio” but then you hear and see it and you think “there’s a whole culture here”. Those are the artists I end up doing a lot of work with: Carly’s like that, Lorde is like that.
As an interview subject Lorde feels like she’s set apart from almost everyone else — not an easy interview but more fun as a result. Does that make sense in terms of what she’s like to work with in the studio?
She has a microscope on everything. She’s deeply obsessed with every piece of the puzzle. It’s purely the sound in her head. I think that’s why we’ve done good work together, because that’s how I make records too. I like being with people who are obsessive — if you change one breath, they hear it. That’s what you want. Deep, meticulous energy. I don’t intellectualise it as ‘hard to work with’, but this work I do is just whatever it takes. There’s no hard or not hard, it’s whatever the process is. I’ve done songs with Ella where we wrote, recorded and finished them in two days, and there are others that took two years. It’s just part of it. Sometimes people are in a place where it’s falling out of them, sometimes it’s terrible painful hurt. I don’t think about it like ‘who’s easy, who’s hard’ — it’s just a living organism, and it’s whatever moment you catch them in.
Regarding the work you’ve been doing with other artists, what’s the first letter of the title of your favourite song nobody’s heard yet?
That would be: B.
What are your thoughts on the supernatural?
I don’t think about it that much, but I assume it’s out there. I’m very focused on reality.
Hold on. If I assumed it was out there, I’d think about it LOADS.
It’s weird, I do assume it’s there, but I feel so concerned with getting these records done before I don’t make records any more that everything else feels very secondary… Which can be challenging for the people around me, I assume.
Can we expect a ‘Terrible Thrills Vol 3’? 3
I think so. I haven’t started working on it but it’s an idea I had in my old band Steel Train — the first ‘Terrible Thrills’ album was with them, the second one was the first Bleachers album, and it honours the inspiration I draw from. The whole point is: here are the songs from some of the artists who inspire me to write the songs in the first place. It’s meant to be a very full circle experience. A little bow on the end of the cycle. So I wouldn’t do it next month, for example. With the last one I did, it was really the perfect time because I felt like I’d said everything I wanted to say with the album, and it was like a parting gift. This part of the cycle should be my version of the album, but when it’s fully realised and fully contextualised and you know what it is, and you’ve lived with it, it’ll be “let’s go back in time and imagine a different version of it”.
On the last album, were there any versions that made you think “hold on, this one’s better than mine”?
I really loved what Natalie Maines from the Dixie Chicks did on the last song [‘Who I Want You To Love’]. I really loved it. I didn’t think it was better but it was so different! They become different songs. A song is just an idea, and it’s expressed so differently when a different human being sings it.
[HERE’S A PLAYLIST OF QUITE GOOD STUFF JACK’S DONE]
Who’d be the ultimate guest vocalist on the nex—
Kate Bush. She’s the greatest of all time. I mean, it’s probably impossible…
Can you get Robyn to do one please?
I LOVE ROBYN.
Bloody Robyn. She keeps doing these things—
She keeps almost making an album.
EPs! Remixes! A snippet of — and you can have a word about this at home — an amazing song on a TV show. She’s almost trolling us now.
It’s crazy how long it’s been since ‘Body Talk’. And that’s one of the most perfect albums in history. That’s up there with ABBA and Yaz[/zoo] albums. It’s as good as it gets. I learned so much from that album — she’s a force of nature.
The first Bleachers album was very 80s-styled, and this one seems to bring in more elements from the 70s. Imagine the year is 2050 and the next Jack Antonoff is making an album themed around the sound of the 2010s. What sonic motifs would he pull out?
The biggest sonic stamp of 2017 has been slightly out of tune, pitched, drony 808s. And that’s something I like! There’s soft EDM that’s become very big but I don’t like that. What lasts over time are the good bits — when people talk about the 70s they reference tight Fleetwood Mac snare drums, they don’t reference absurd proggy Moog albums, which were huge but not remembered. One of the greatest traditions of right now is what’s going on in the low end — all these tracks that really hit you in the gut but not in a pounding way. There’s a lot of simplicity at the moment. But it’s also a weird, vast open time. I wonder if we’re just living in one of these weird moments where everything’s happening all at once?
Maybe so many people are drawing on so many eras of music that it’s like when you mix paints together and all those colours just end up giving you brown.
Yeah. One of the biggest things about this time period is that I feel like there’s a generational disconnect more than ever. In other time periods everyone connected on a style of music but now…
Well it’s like you said earlier about getting older isn’t it: maybe you need time to pass so that you can look back.
That’s true, I mean how can you really know, in the moment? And is it your job to know? I think it’s more about following a feeling.
You’ve said that making your new album involved contemplating every version of your existence. What different versions did you come up with, and which did you choose to go with?
I don’t know if I came up with anything. (Laughs) I just know I’d had experiences and feelings I wanted to make sense of — that’s the journey I want to take with people, making sense of the disruptive things that happen in life. Why do they happen? How do they move from there? When you’ve heard something in your head and then you make it happen in real life, it’s euphoric — you can cease to exist. You’ve found that thing. It’s like the end of [SPOILER ALERT] The Da Vinci Code. You live for those moments, whether it’s a lyric or a sound or a whole song. In this medium, pop music, you don’t have many words. It’s not jazz, it’s not a novel, it’s not a long meditative experience, and that’s the joy of this work. That’s what thrills me. You have a tiny little box to fit your whole life in, and you have to somehow fit everyone else’s life into it too.
‘Hate That You Know Me’ is about not being able to hide from yourself when you’re in a relationship. Would it not solve these problems if you just went out with a rampant narcissist who didn’t pay any attention to what you were like?
Maybe! You know, you get what you need. You really do. You go after people who bring out a better version of yourself — hopefully, if you’re not super self-sabotaging. I’m not very self-sabotaging, in that way. It’s hard to have real relationships with people. You have to face yourself. The older you get, the more you have to face yourself and decisions you’ve made and things you want to change. I had that idea in my head for so long, and it was such a heavy subject that I wanted to write a sunny song around it.
‘Let’s Get Married’ seems like a happy song on first listen, but you also seem like a bit of a tricky fucker, so what’s it all about?
(Laughs) Yeah… I wrote it the day after the election. I’ve spent my whole life touring [America] and I feel like I really know people. Mississippi, Alabama, Chicago, LA, Seattle, Utah, all of it. My whole work is about speaking to people. When the election happened I had a lot of feelings, but one of the more personal feelings was sadness that I didn’t understand the people I thought I knew. I’d go to these places all the time and I felt like I didn’t understand them, for the first time in my life. People would always say “oh, middle America” and I’d think, like, “you don’t know it, I go there all the time, there’s a lot of great people there and a great culture”, and this was the first time I thought, “damn, what happened here, who are you?”. It made me scared and it made me want to invest in the people close to me. I was in my apartment the next morning and I was looking out of the window, like “who was it?”. Almost a witch hunt feeling. Who did it? Which one of you did it? I saw the confines of my apartment as a safe space and I came up with the idea of “well I don’t want to leave here, so fuck it, let’s get married”. I wrote it as a very sad song then I got very excited in a Springsteen-type way — there’s nothing I love more than twisting something. Like with ‘Dancing In The Dark’ one person will say “it’s about dancing, in the dark!” and the next person will say “he’s screaming ‘I want to change my clothes, my hair, my face’, that’s serious shit”. I wanted to have a song that would be played at weddings for the next hundred years but would secretly be about wanting to close the doors and marry the person you love because you don’t understand the rest of the world. It’s not a political album, but the entire time I was writing it was this incredibly potent season in America. I’m very political in life but not in music — it doesn’t come naturally.
On reflection do you think your opinion of America had been distorted by the places your bands had been booked?
It’s true that with my music and my persona I’m not drawing a lot of alt-right people, but I really did live in the country. It’s different now because I get ferried places and just pop up in a hotel or venue but most of my career, before I had any commercial success, I was driving the van, I was filling up with gas… I experienced everything on the way — you were with those people, you ate with them. It wasn’t just as simple as getting to the town and all the cool left-wing freaks turning up at the show. You start to feel connected to people — you see them. But from a strictly artistic point of view, politics aside, my work has always been conversational and so a lot of my work has been based on thinking I know people, so it’s really fucked me up that I don’t know people.
It’ll be interesting to see how this filters through pop over the coming years.
I’m very political in everyday life — I run an organisation, I have a lot of very open interests in that area — but it’s about what comes natural. My writing has always been deeply personal, from the heart rather than the brain. There are a lot of songs on this album that someone might be dancing to and someone else might be crying to somewhere else in the world at the same time, which is my intention.
Sometimes those are the best pop songs, right?
Contextualising the deepest emotions — love, sadness, depression, anxiety, joy, all of it. That’s what pop is all about.