Gone Now

After building a devoted fan-base through a year and a half of non-stop touring behind his band Bleachers’ well-received debut album Strange Desire, Jack Antonoff was spending time in studios in Los Angeles and Atlanta spit-balling ideas for a second album when he had a powerful realization. It struck him, as he was sitting in hip-hop producers Organized Noize’s studio in Atlanta, that the records that have meant the most to him — classics by Bruce Springsteen, Kanye West, Depeche Mode, OutKast, and Kendrick Lamar, to name a few — are rooted in a specific place. “They came from somewhere!” he says excitedly. “There’s an energy there and the artist is telling a story of how they were raised. It’s a sound from a city, and they’re planting a flag in that city and saying, ‘This is what it’s like to live here.’”

The New Jersey-born, New York-based Antonoff knew he needed to go home to the East Coast and build a studio. “It’s like you have to go sit in your bedroom and hear the music on the speakers you heard Graceland on the first time,” he says. “You gotta listen through the speakers you heard Smashing Pumpkins on the radio the first time. I had to get back to that space. So I did. I grabbed all this shit from my childhood bedroom in New Jersey and built a studio in my apartment in New York and I literally didn’t leave it. I thought, ‘This album is going to sound like New York and New Jersey and the actual space I grew up in, in the most specific way. And that, to me, is the most I can offer.”

It was there in that room — surrounded by posters and flyers from punk shows he saw as a kid and his old baseball trophies and Star Wars figurines — that Antonoff created the epic, synth-driven anthems that appear on Bleachers’ second album, Gone Now. As a result, the album sounds like “the way the space looks,” he says. “It sounds like someone alone in their room, wrestling with their thoughts. It sounds like someone trying to create something very direct and simple amongst the chaos.”

Critics praised Strange Desire’s modern nostalgia and remarked that the ’80s-influenced songs could have served as a soundtrack to a never-made high-school-themed John Hughes film. On that album, Antonoff set emotional meditations on anxiety, depression, loss and picking yourself up after a tragedy (in his case, the death of his younger sister from a brain tumor when Antonoff was 18 and his struggle with a panic disorder in the aftermath) against a backdrop of earworm melodies and shouty choruses on songs like the gold-certified “I Wanna Get Better” (which topped Billboard’s Alternative chart) and “Rollercoaster.”

“The songs were about growing up and still sort of existing in the past,” Antonoff says. “The crux of the new album is my desperately trying to find a way to become some version of an adult, and not just be a giant child. I thought a lot about things like, ‘Where do I want to go from here? Do I want to be married? Do I want to have kids? When? Do I want to be a person who has this extremely vibrant relationship with their art, but their life suffers in a million other places? Where do I want to go with my life?’”

Antonoff sought to answer those questions on every song on Gone Now. On “I Miss Those Days,” he pines for a simpler time when “I knew I was fucked up and didn’t know why I was fucked up,” he says referencing the years he spent as a high-schooler touring with his first punk band, Outline, “driving around in a van and playing to no one. I was lost, but I miss those days because there’s a weight to having a purpose in something.” On “Hate That You Know Me” Antonoff realizes that when you build a life with someone and make plans for the future, “it makes you really exposed to the ways in which you’re a disaster,” he says. “There’s this accountability that is so intense. But it’s also about how amazing that can be if you’re willing to go there with someone.” Then there’s “Let’s Get Married,” which Antonoff wrote the day after Donald Trump was elected. “Marriage is such a wild, absurd concept, but the world was falling down into flames around my eyes, and I wanted to write this absurd celebration song that could play at weddings for the next hundred years.”

On each track, Antonoff searches for ways to illuminate humanity’s communal emotions, like the fact that no one is exempt from the experience of loss. “I think everything I do is always going to be rooted in that,” Antonoff says. “After my sister died, I started writing lyrics that weren’t just angsty teen stuff. That’s when I started talking about very intense things. Fourteen years later, I’m still reflecting on that loss but through a different lens.” Antonoff’s current vantage point resonates on the song “Everybody Lost Somebody.” “At my worst moments, I see people on the street and think, ‘Which one of you motherfuckers voted for Trump?’” he says. “At my best moments, I see people on the street and I think, ‘Everybody has lost somebody.’”

On Gone Now’s first single, “Don’t Take The Money,” Antonoff laments how our society has culturally lost the concept of what selling out means. The song was inspired by his buying a cut-rate phone charger at a Rite Aid when his phone died as he was running late to a meeting. “I got there and plugged the phone into the charger and I had this out-of-body experience where I could not believe how cheap the material was,” he recalls. “And I thought to myself, ‘That’s the real problem.’ Whether you’re making art or making a sandwich, you know when something could be better.”

Warming to his theme, Antonoff continues: “You can make ambient, weird albums for five people or you can make pop records for the mainstream, just don’t make it cheap. That’s the last thing the world needs. People don’t need a cheap version of something you’re trying to sell them. They don’t need a cheap version of someone else’s culture. They don’t need a cheap version of something that came out of a studio where a bunch of industry people are trying to anticipate what fans will like. They just need for me to somehow capture the lightning in a bottle of what it’s like to be me, to grow up with loss, and then to try to move through the world within that. All I’ve wanted to do my whole life with my work is just take another step closer to myself. And the reason I do this is that I need some proof in the universe that I’m not the only person who has felt this way.”

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[March 2017]

10 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT JACK ANTONOFF AND BLEACHERS

1. Jack became captivated with music in the early ’90s. “I remember seeing the Green Day videos for ‘Longview’ and ‘Basket Case’ and Smashing Pumpkins’  “Today” and “Tonight, Tonight” video and I became obsessed. At that point in my life, I got really into different hobbies. There was the baseball-card phase, then a crazy stamp-collecting phase. I went through a Star Wars phase. I didn’t even love the movies that much, I just was obsessed with collecting all the figures. But when MTV started playing all this great alternative music in the ’90s, the collecting went out the window. It was like, ‘I have to play music.’ My parents bought me a guitar and I just never stopped.

2. Before he formed fun. with Nate Ruess and Andrew Dost in 2008, Jack fronted his own band called Steel Train. “I started the band with a friend when I was in high school and we got a record deal our senior year. I never wanted to go to college. I auditioned at a couple of music schools where I would play them my song. At every one there would be a bald guy with a ponytail explaining to me and my father why my song was garbage. So no college for me.”

3. Yes, he likes to work. A lot. “People seem vaguely shocked when I tell them I’m making an album. They’re like, ‘What?! Why are you making an album? You already have a band!’ But I have these songs and they have to go somewhere. Every day I sit down and write and it either goes in the fun. folder, the Bleachers folder, or someone else’s folder, when I’m working with other artists. To me, making music is like eating. You’re not going to eat the same thing every day, even your favorite meal in the world. It’s still important for me to do different things. It makes everything else so much better. Fun. started as three people who had all made music and toured for ten years. Andrew is scoring films right now. Nate works a lot of other artists. That’s just something that’s always been part of the deal.”

4. How he came up with the name Bleachers: “There’s a song on the album called ‘Like A River Runs,’ that used to be called ‘Bleachers’ because I thought it was the coolest name. I changed the title when I decided it should be the band name and not a song name. Bleachers just feels like the sound of the music. I was driving with my sister and we were talking about the feelings and influences of the music and the word just like came out. We were like, “That’s it, that’s the name. That’s exactly what it feels like.” It ties into the feeling of a childhood I never had, but even though it was dark, it was also hopeful.”

5. Jack played everything on Bleachers’ album. “I would program a beat on an MPC, and then play on top of it live in the studio. Then I would pick it apart, which is why the album has this energy and aggression that you get from live instruments, but also has a controlled sonic thing that you get from programming stuff. For every thin part, there would be a wide guitar part blown out through an old ’60s EMI board. For every live, random vocal take that I did somewhere in a bizarre place in the world, I would also do vocals or over-dubs that really brought all these things together.”

6. Making the Bleachers album was a global affair. “I wrote and recorded wherever fun. were touring, so the songs were made in Stockholm, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea, Italy, and the U.S.”

7. First single “I Wanna Get Better” is literally about Jack wanting to get better. “It’s about wanting to get better in an emotional sense, a feeling I’ve worked with a lot, just thinking I’m not healthy, but I want to be. The song is a real rant. The verses are me going through the shit that really bothers me about myself and then pulling it together, like the lyric, ‘I didn’t know I was alone until I saw your face.’ In that song, the concept of wanting to get better is about my girlfriend, as well, and how that was a huge element in my starting to feel better.”

8. “Shadow” is about Jack’s friend Sara Quinn from Tegan & Sara. “I read this article in The New Yorker about a therapist who had this idea that everyone has a shadow. Your shadow is like your shitty self. For me, I’m six feet tall, and I’m not terrible-looking, probably, and I’m good at certain things, so that’s hopefully what I am. But my shadow is the person who is horrible at everything he does, knocks things over, and is bloated and weird. Everyone has a shadow version of themselves. My friend Sara, who I actually wrote the song about, calls her shadow The Transvelt. So that song is big and delicate and the lyric is, ‘If you’re feeling blah, I will love your shadow.’”

9. Jack was born in 1984, the same year John Hughes released Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. “To me, in many ways, the test of a great song is ‘Could this exist in a great film, particularly a John Hughes film?”

10. But he came of age in the ’90s. “It was a really connected moment in music and culture, where when you walked down the street and saw someone your age, you knew, automatically, that you guys liked the same music, which is not the case nowadays. Now you walk down the street and you wonder if someone likes Katy Perry or the Arcade Fire or some weird shit you don’t know about. But it was extremely connected back then. So there was this moment where you felt like you were part of something because you listened to music. I want to bring that feeling back.”

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[July 2014]

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