It’s more than a little ironic that a song called “We Are Young,” fun.’s breakthrough anthem, brought Jack Antonoff his first mainstream success.
That’s because for much of his childhood, Antonoff didn’t feel young. He was too busy coping with his sister’s illness and her subsequent death from cancer. With Strange Desire, the debut album by his new project Bleachers, he’s attempting to live through that pain — not just with his guitar, but with his lyrics and voice.
“I went through a lot when I was younger at a very formative moment,” Antonoff explains. “In many ways, I sort of lost that period of my life… I kind of feel like I’m mourning the childhood I never had. The album is very much about that — looking at it from the perspective of being 30 years old right now and feeling that I really never got that moment of innocence.
"My sister was born when I was five, and she was always sick and she died when I was 18; and that was another moment in time when I should have been very carefree, going to college or whatever, but I was dealing with all this weighty stuff and it really shaped the course of my life…I always kind of wonder what it would have been like to have a more simple existence early on.”
Those topics are addressed in “I Wanna Get Better,” the celebratory first track released from Bleachers back in February and included on Strange Desire. Antonoff has tackled these issues in the past. Long before fun. — which features Antonoff, singer Nate Ruess, and keyboardist Andrew Dost — became the breakout act of 2012, Antonoff was in the New Jersey-based indie rock band Steel Train. That band’s 2007 song “I Feel Weird” opens with the lines, “When I was 18 everything was alive/Then the planes hit the towers /Then she died, then he died/A part of me disappeared /Six feet in the ground.”
When discussing "I Wanna Get Better” and “I Feel Weird,” Antonoff brings up yet another song: “This Year” by the Mountain Goats from 2005. “The chorus is, ‘I’m going to make it through this year if it kills me,’ and the verses are all about his stepfather beating his mother and he’d have to run and hide — those aren’t experiences I’ve had, but that lyric about 'I’m going to make it through this year’ meant the world to me. And I’ve been through these things. Maybe people can relate to it, maybe they can’t, but what they can definitely relate to is the concept of wanting to move on and wanting to get better, just like the song says.”
“In Steel Train, I was looking at those concepts through a 25-year-old or a 22-year-old’s perspective,” he continues. “Now I’m looking at it through a 30-year-old’s perspective. That different lens is very important.”
It’s also important for Antonoff to have a voice. While he certainly has enjoyed the success of fun. and remains a part of that band, he felt the need to express himself elsewhere, hence the creation of Bleachers.
“It’s more just about expressing different things,” Antonoff says, but he wants to make it clear that it’s not coming at the expense of fun. “I was writing this record with or without fun. taking any time off between albums. I would never do anything out of schedule.”
Antonoff actually began working on Bleachers while on the road with fun., but he says he had no problem separating Bleachers’ material from fun. “It’s always very obvious to me,” he says. “I don’t really know why, but I’ll have two folders on my computer and one will say 'fun.’ and one will say 'Bleachers,’ whether it’s a drumbeat or a whole song, things just naturally fit into those folders.”
While Bleachers is more or less a studio creation, Antonoff says the album was “made to be played live. It was made imagining a crowd of people playing it.” And, true to those words, the band has played several live dates.
To co-produce and co-write the material on Strange Desire, Antonoff called on John Hill, known for his work with Empire of the Sun, Shakira, and others. “John was involved early on in the process and was present through the whole process,” Antonoff says.
In the initial stages of the project, Antonoff found himself not quite able to articulate what he had planned. “It was almost easier to make a mood board with pictures of Tank Girl and Duckie from Pretty in Pink and old Minor Threat posters,” he says. “But once we got together and did a song, for the first time I heard what was in my head. I said, 'OK, John’s the guy,’ and he became my partner in the whole thing.”
In an attempt to capture an authentic '80s sound, Antonoff also called on one of his musical idols from the era, Vince Clarke, known as an original member of Depeche Mode before leaving to form Yaz and later Erasure. “John and I were in the studio literally referencing a Vince Clarke part: 'This sounds like Erasure with the low end,’” Antonoff explains. Years prior, Antonoff’s music publisher had given him Clarke’s email, since she knew he idolized the musician, but he hadn’t used it. “I never emailed him, because I had nothing to say,” Antonoff says.
However, the Bleachers material gave him reason. “Instead of us trying to do Vince, we’ll get Vince to do himself,” he noted. “So we sent him the track, and he sent it to us back, and we used that model back and forth. It was very cool to work with someone who inspired me to work in the first place.”
Clarke appears on four songs on the album, and although they never actually worked in the studio together, Antonoff and Clarke did meet for lunch once.
Also putting in guest appearances on Strange Desire are Yoko Ono, Antonoff’s girlfriend Lena Dunham (the creator and star of HBO’s Girls), and Canadian indie sensation Grimes. The latter appears on “Take Me Away.”
“Grimes, I’m a big fan of,” Antonoff says. “She’s one of my favorite modern artists. We did this session and she started singing these ethereal ideas over it and looping these lyrics and I kind of chopped it all and put in samples of her singing and laughing in the song, and it just turned out to be perfect.”
Ono and Dunham are featured in spoken-word bits that are sprinkled throughout the album. “It’s kind of my version of what hip-hop does with sampling,” Antonoff says.
Of course, being in a hit pop band and dating a TV star means that Antonoff is in the spotlight at times, even when he’s not on stage, but that’s something he’s managed to avoid for the most part. He and Dunham manage to keep their relationship relatively private; something he says is actually not too difficult to achieve: “We’re both working so much that we spend most of our time in our apartment alone,” he says. “There’s a world out there that is pretty easy to close out. It’s easy not to put yourself in stupid situations. We’re not going to hang out on the red carpet together. We’re not going to hang out in a restaurant in L.A. where those kind of things happen. We’re just going to live our lives like very normal people.”