Jack Antonoff rarely sits still. Between writing a new album and touring for his new band, Bleachers, the busy singer/songwriter is also the guitarist of Fun., and has co-written songs for pop juggernauts like Taylor Swift and Sara Bareilles. You know that song "Brave" on the Windows tablet commercial—the one that plays before every free clip on Hulu? Antonoff wrote that.
We caught up with him to talk about his upcoming album Strange Desire, what it’s like working with his Girls creator girlfriend Lena Dunham and his one Sin City necessity.
Your new album (Strange Desire) comes out July 15, but you’re kicking off your tour before then. What can listeners expect, since they haven’t heard the whole album? They can expect to hear the whole album. That’s one thing that’s interesting about touring before the album’s out. I’ve always been in bands that had releases and there’s all this material that people knew. So this has been interesting. When we started playing shows in March, only “I Wanna Get Better” was out, so we would play a full set and people would know one song. I feel like there’s a lot of faith coming from the audience to go see a show from a band that only has a couple songs out, which I love.
I read that Bleachers is more personal and emotional for you than Fun., and that it was influenced by things that happened when you were a teenager. How is this album more emotional for you? To me, it’s talking about things that I’ve been through, but then tying it in in a way that people can understand. A perfect example: I’m a really big fan of this band called The Mountain Goats, and they did a song called “Dance Music,” and I was really inspired by the song.
I love that song. Yeah, so it’s like, you and I are talking about how much we love that song, but the verses are about his stepfather beating his mother and [him] running upstairs and blasting music on his radio so he doesn’t have to hear it. That was not my experience growing up, but I can relate to the experience of wanting to escape something that was going on, so I try to write [about] things that I’ve been through.
A lot of the songs are about how I lost my sister when I was 18. 9/11 happened a few months later and [it was] this real shift in time. I feel like I’m always writing about that, always looking back on that. I’m writing about it two years later, five years later. I’m writing about it now that I’m 30 through a different lens. Everyone can relate, for example, to the concept of “you’ve been through all this stuff and you still want to get better.” That’s a theme through the whole album.
I imagine you’ve had your pick of the best producers. What was it like working with John Hill (Phantogram, Wavves) and Vince Clarke (Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure)? When I first started this album, I was working with a bunch of different producers just for a day at a time, just trying things out, seeing what was going to work. I had the sound in my head, and it wasn’t coming together in any sort of perfect way. John [Hill] and I got together and worked for one day, and we did, like, half the songs. The vibe was perfect and the sound was sonically right what I was thinking of. So he kind of became my partner in everything.
With Vince [Clarke], my publisher gave me Vince’s email address, like, two years ago. I never emailed him, because I had nothing to say to him [besides], “I love you, you’re my hero.” I couldn’t think of what I would say to him. And then I started working on this album and we kept finding ourselves in situations where we’d be like, “Oh, this should be like a Yazoo type of synth part, or like a Vince Clarke/Erasure type of drum part or something like that. And then finally I was like, “I have Vince’s email; maybe we could just get Vince to do it.” So I met him in the middle of the day at some restaurant to talk about it, and I basically told him how much I love him and that I think modern pop music should write him a check for, like, a billion dollars, since you know, every garbage pop song is some bad version of something he already did. We just started sending files back and forth. It was really an awesome, full-circle experience. It’s pretty rare you get to work with people that inspire you to write a song in the first place.
How did the single “I Wanna Get Better” come together? “I Wanna Get Better” was one of the last songs I wrote, and it took forever. Sometimes when something is really good on the front end it takes longer, because there’s a lot of pressure. I had that beat with all the samples and stuff, and I thought it was really great—it just took forever to figure out where to go from there. There was no part of the song that wasn’t excruciating to figure out. Now it’s wonderful that it’s done, but it was an intense process. I probably worked on it for two months on and off.
Your girlfriend, Lena Dunham, directed the video for “I Wanna Get Better.” What was it like getting to work with your girlfriend in such a creative way? It was a blast. It’s great when people you love do something great and you can collaborate on that. It’s a wonderful thing.
Fun. blew up overnight, but with Bleachers you’ve had time to slowly leak things out. What have you learned from the success of Fun. that you’ve applied to Bleachers? I feel like it’s all the same thing. When you’re playing a club, you want it to feel like an arena for everyone in the club, and if you play an arena you want everyone to feel like they’re in a tiny club. You want the person in the back row to think, “I was just seeing that band in a bar, not some sh*tty arena.” Having different perspectives is really important, because both of those feelings need to constantly exist.
You’ve made it clear that Bleachers isn’t a side project. Where does that leave Fun.? Are you still working with them? Yeah, of course. I get that question a lot, and I always think it’s funny. To me, it’s not weird to have two bands. I think everyone should have two bands, you know? In the middle of the Fun. cycle, when I wrote most of the Bleachers album, I started having all these ideas, and they weren’t going to be for a new Fun. album, because they felt aesthetically different. And they weren’t going to be for some other artists, because they were too personal to me.
Between Bleachers, Fun., and co-writing songs, it seems like you’re always working on something. Have you always been this creative? It’s been more lately. I work whenever I have ideas. I’d love to take more time off, but right now I just have a lot of ideas, so I’m doing a lot of work right now. You can’t, like, sit down and work and make an album. The ideas come to you or they don’t. So when the ideas come you have to get yourself excited. You know, it’s like a special scenario. It’s like, if someone wants to sleep with you, you should probably do it if it’s the right scenario. That’s a bad example. If I have ideas, whether I’m in Japan or home in New York or whatever it is, it’s good to get up and not worry about eating or getting rest and do it and get it out. Sometimes it happens in that ideal time. I’ve had periods of my life where I’ve been home for six months and been, like, watching the entire series of Sex and the City front to back, and I haven’t had any ideas.
I’ve read that you’re a bit of a germaphobe. Depending on how you do Vegas, it can be a pretty dirty place. What do you have to avoid when you come here? I avoid strip clubs. They’re cesspools for disease. I don’t like the circulation of air in the casinos. I always feel like I’ve been dried out. Last time I was in Las Vegas I asked for a humidifier, and it must be a common request because they brought one to the room in, like, six seconds. So that’ll be the first thing I do—get a humidifier and just blast myself with moisture.
Bleachers with Rusty Maples. June 26, 8 p.m., $20. Cosmopolitan’s Boulevard Pool, 702-698-7000.