The Many Confessions Of Jack Antonoff

With his web series Thank You and Sorry, the Bleachers frontman finds a likable new way to bare it all.

June 15, 2015

Jack Antonoff—of Bleachers fame and Taylor Swift-producer renown—will unveil a new project tomorrow, his first ever like it. Called Thank You and Sorry, it's a six-part series that mixes documentary footage and actual interviews with scripted, surreal fictional riffs: Lena Dunham, Antonoff's IRL girlfriend, will play his publicist, and Rosie Perez will play his girlfriend. I know it sounds confusing, but it's great: funny, sensitive. It's like the Louie of music, or a sporadically real-life Spinal Tap.

All six episodes are available for free on Google Play starting Tuesday, June 16. Last week, I spoke to Antonoff to mark the occasion and dig into some of the themes of the show—getting older, challenging yourself, and feeling confident in your work, whether it's for 20 people or 20 million. Just like the show, it was an honest and eye-opening convo.

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You’re a busy guy, launching the new show this week, touring everywhere, and starting your own festival in New Jersey. How did you end up juggling so much?

It's no different than ever except people notice all of a sudden. I used to have a band called Steel Train: it was my first band, and we were together for like nine years. On the last Steel Train record we did all of this crazy stuff, like we released a companion album with all female artists, did the 7-inches, did pop-up shows and the only people who noticed were the couple of fans we had. So it doesn't come from having any sort of success vs. not success. I feel like it's always been in my spirit to look at something I'm doing and say, “Okay, how can I make this really interesting and how can I surround this with a bunch of different exciting things?” I guess what has changed in my life is just if I do something a lot of press writes about it.

There are just a lot of things I want to do, and I don't see why I can't do them. So whether it's starting a music festival or having a show—I mean, making a record is a big thing. It's kinda like having sex with the intention of having a baby. Not to sound gross, but you pump all of these different things into something right? And then you know X-amount of months later all of this crazy shit pops out. That's exactly what is going on now: I pump all of these ideas and all of the sudden they start popping out at the same time. Sorry about that.

That analogy shows you’re getting older—like, as a teenager you wouldn’t probably have been thinking about what it’s like to have a kid. So one thing that has changed is you’ve got more experience making music and being a person.

I like that. I like my trajectory because you can't learn things any other way. I'm happy that those early records and early shows were for less people. It was cool for those cool people to see me fumble around, but it's more fair for the masses for me to know what I'm doing.

And thats also, like, a fucking epidemic in modern music where artists seem to pop out of nowhere and they have a cool vibe and a cool record but then they can't fucking tour and they can't do this and they can't do that. When I first started touring I would do absurd things like buy opium and leave it in the van and then go through the grand canyon and have the van searched by cops, and it was by the grace of god that they wouldn't find it and that I wouldn't go to jail for 10 years. I just did the dumbest shit. I’m pretty happy that it has ended up the way it has.

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“Making a record is a big thing. It’s kinda like having sex with the intention of having a baby.” —Jack Antonoff

Where did the idea for Thank You and Sorry come from?

It was an idea that I've had for a very long time. I love documentaries, and even more so I love music documentaries. Whether it’s the greatest documentary ever made or some shitty TV documentary, I absolutely love all of it and I think it's just a perfect. So I thought, what if it was twisted and turned into a different space, and there were scripted elements, and I just got to thinking. Sometimes I see my life like a weird movie or sitcom, particularly in a band where it's like, “Did anyone else fucking see that?" So I just got this idea, like, what if there was this weird blend of my life and this band being documented, but then random elements were scripted that played off of it? And that’s pretty much what we did.

For example, they filmed some documentary footage of me on the phone with my girlfriend. That week she was throwing away a lot of my stuff, and I was kind of lil bummed about it and I kept being like, “I love you, don't throw away my stuff.” Then at the end of the day, we had this idea of, like, what if my girlfriend was actually Rosie Perez, and I come home and we have this big argument about her throwing out my shit and then she leaves me? It became this bizarre scripted thing that bled out of something that was really going on. That's exactly what we did with the entire series.

To what degree was Lena Dunham involved? You’ve said before that you share your work with each other before it’s done.

It was actually the opposite, which is funny because we recently had an argument about it, and I think I felt a little self-conscious about drifting into her world in any way. When this thing started I kind of left her out and just sort of went off and started shooting it. She knew the idea, and I had been kicking around the idea, but I remember that I didn't tell her the day we started production. One of her writers’ assistant knew someone who was working on my show and told her, and she called me and was like, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” It was a very funny moment, but I felt like if I'm going to do anything like this, I have to try to go at it on my own.

But once we started editing and doing all things like that, once I realized it was something I was proud of—because I didn't know what the fuck it was going to be like. When I'm making a record, through every stage it might sound like fucking noise to someone, but I know whats going on. I've made records, and I know how to do it, and I know if it's good or it's bad. I don't make series or films or anything like that, so as the process went on I didn't know what was happening. I had no experience of knowing if this was an good shoot or if it was going well, so when we got the first edits back, and I was really happy and inspired with what was coming back, that's when I kind of loosened up and kind of started to use her as a resource. 

In the first episode, you say touring is liberating because it frees you from the bad memories of real life in your hometown. Is playing a partly fictional version of yourself a similar thing?

I get to play out a lot of fantasies. Everyone on the fucking face of the earth, I guess, is always wrestling with these different things in their head. Obviously this show is not a groundbreaking idea—this is the concept of therapy—but when you get to say those things out loud and wrestle with them in an open space, you feel way more connected and less alone. That's the same with my music. I mean, even lyrically it's just me vomiting all of the things that I've gone through and how I feel about them. This is just a bigger idea of that.

There's a big scene where I talk about having this dream, which is real, where I cheated on my girlfriend, but I'm not having sex in the dream. Just the fact that I've cheated exists. In the dream I've done this thing and I've ruined my relationship, but I didn't want to. I wake up from it and I'm fascinated with the idea that what does it psychologically mean that in my dream I've ruined my life but i've enjoyed none of the pleasure of having sex with another person? I had that dream a lot on tour, so we scripted all this stuff where I'm bothering the crew and talking to them about this dream.

I've really started a get a lot of satisfaction of taking these bizarre feelings I have and putting them out there. Or even bizarre things about the music industry. There's a lot of stuff about labels and managers and kind of how bizarre it is. There are all these scenes that make something seem like a big fucking circus and joke, and then, like, really quickly it will be a really amazing conversation with a fan about something horrible that happened to them and why music matters. It kind of volleys back and forth.

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“The stakes are so high, so the last thing you could do is not be all in. And at the moment with Bleachers, I’m completely all in.” —Jack Antonoff

I think what I most appreciated about what I’ve seen is how the scale of things was very close to you. You have a very quiet delivery, and a lot of the scenes are quiet—both in terms of the action and the tone. It's small in a nice way.

I appreciate that. It's exactly what were going for. It's been a bizarre project, and I'm excited for it to exist and also excited to find out where it will fit in the landscape of what I do. Now that we've finished it, I kind of think like, oh, interesting, maybe this is a new model for me with record cycles. This series is so directly linked to of the current Bleachers album. Each episode obviously specifically has a song, but then the lyrics from the songs play into the concepts of the episodes. It's total interplay of the music, and so I kind of thought, well, maybe then that is my path as I make records and they're accompanied a couple months later by another season of Thank You and Sorry, and everything is kind of working off of itself. But those are just ideas that are running through my head.

Do you feel pretty settled in Bleachers? You’ve done a few different projects, and so talking about a next Bleachers album feels significant.

It does. I mean, every album I've ever made feels really heavy to me because it's always a brand new chapter. With the first Bleachers album I felt like I had so much to prove, coming from where I was coming from, and these ideas were so intense and they meant so much. It gets no easier. With the next Bleachers album it’s like, well, its a second album, and that’s sort of the most you have to prove ever, and this one went well, and there so much more I want to say, so it all feels very massive.

I have become very obsessed with this concept of how important fans are. Not only do they spend their money—which, in 2015, like, what a big deal for someone to spend their hard-earned money, but even more important than that they spend their money on music and on tickets and all of these things. The stakes are so high, so the last thing you could do is not be all in. And at the moment with Bleachers, I'm completely all in. That feels like it's fair to people. Because that's the real thing about art and music: you gotta own the fact that I'm going out there and asking people to spend their time and money on my shit. If I don't believe that it]s coming from the most honest place in me, and if I don't believe that it's worth it—even if the whole time it's me talking about what a piece of shit I am—like, if I don't believe that it has some sort of emotional or cultural value then I should just kill myself, and so I think that you can't make a project if you don't believe that, and at this point Bleachers is the epitome of what I believe in.

Are you becoming more attracted to the idea of a body of work than you used to be? Or is that you feel like you’re able to do things that are more you than you used to be?

I guess people started taking notice of me, like, three years ago, so it was very rapid: Steel Train, fun., Bleachers, boom-boom-boom. What doesn't come through is that Steel Train, I stayed there for ten years. You know, I think that's longer than the Beatles. What I mean is we were slugging it out, and we made four albums and went from being a drive-through record band to a hippie Bonnaroo band to opening for Tegan & Sarah five years later. We had all of these bizarre—we never fucking let up on the world's shittiest band name, which is now so close to my heart that I kinda want to get it tattooed to my face. We never let up. It was ten years, and we made all of these mistakes in public. Our first album was produced by the guy who did American Beauty, ur second album was produced by the guy who did Dude Ranch by Blink-182, our third album was produced by Steven McDonald from Be Your Own Pet—that shows you just how fucking bizarre the trajectory of that band was. And then fun. happened, and fun. was always going to be a collaborative thing, but I always was going to do my own thing. So Bleachers ended up being this extension out of Steel Train, and I love the idea of something going on for a long time.

God knows what will happen, but I see Bleachers being something that exists for a very long time, but I also feel like it's kind of the best of both worlds because it's not hard to find out where I've been, and you can very easily in one Google search look up all my biggest mistakes.

And I like that because I think it's important and I think contrary to the culture we live in. It's the same reason why all of the sudden Lana Del Rey is becoming more and more interesting. Theres this thing that happens where you go from being like this weird sensation who did this weird thing or had a great album or whatever to, like, all of the sudden you wake up and—I was watching this Lana Del Rey live stream, and I was just like, "Wow, there’s a lot of songs here. They're a lot of songs I know." It's the same thing with Kanye. You sit at that concert and all of the other shit drifts away. All the nowness of what he did or said or whatever, you're just watching the show and you're like, “God fucking dammit this guy has more hits than Katy Perry.” Like, this guy has just been making records and making good records for so long.

That's the spirit of all of this stuff, and the more that I can be a part of that, the most honest I feel to myself. The truth is I've been doing this for 15 years, and I couldn't be less interested in pretending that I'm like a new exciting thing that popped out of nowhere. 

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