Don’t Call It A Side Project:
Contrast and Conflict with Jack Antonoff
Words and Photo by Ken Grand-Pierre
Having musicians that believe in something is a key component to life that can sometimes be hard to come by. Whatever the reason for that may be we do have musicians out there who play with feverish passion and truly excel at what they do. Such a musician is Jack Antonoff of Fun., who is now promoting his new project, Bleachers. Recently we got to sit with Jack and talk through the process of making the upcoming Bleachers album and why the phrase ‘side project’ is the last phrase you should use to describe Bleachers.
Something that’s impressed me has been your stance on side projects and the disdain towards the term. What interests me about that is it’s as though you pointed out an elephant in the room: that people generally don’t take side projects seriously. Do you feel like this was something you had to address while promoting Bleachers?
Jack Antonoff: I wasn’t trying to make a grand statement, more so just trying to be honest. I think there’s a bit of pretention when it comes to that word that stops people within side projects to be vocal about how they feel about that sort of stigma. My feelings on the term side project is that it’s an irrelevant term. It’s a simple term that’s used to describe something that isn’t simple, and it’s weird to me because it kind of plays into how people have this weird need to understand things that aren’t usually meant to be understood, especially something like art. Whenever you make an album it’s because you’re compelled to, not because of variables that equate to a certain reason. I do have a band, but these songs felt like they could be part of something else, and whenever people ask the background to it I really want to say ‘just wait for the songs, listen to them, and then make up your mind’ (laughs). It can be tiring to say the least, dealing with that mindset towards ‘side project’ I just want people to enjoy it or not enjoy it, because trying to figure out every angle behind this isn’t why I went about making the album in the first place.
I totally agree, we should probably utilize a different term for it then, how about ‘alternative projects’?
Jack: (laughs) That works for me.
Well it’s very refreshing seeing this kind of stance towards it, it really is. Lots of respect to you towards that because you’re right: music should always be as it is, take or leave it if you’re a listener, this is what was made for you to hear. My mindset towards ‘alternative projects’ is that they tend to exist because the material wouldn’t work for the primary group of an artist, what do you think about this? Was this at all the case with Bleachers?
Jack: The tone of everything felt very different while I was writing these songs. It’s hard to pinpoint how but in my head it was very easy to distinguish what was a Bleachers song and what was a Fun. song while I was writing. The biggest thing I think people are missing with distinguishing the two projects is the lyrical content, which are both very different from one another. I think when you notice that you’ll start to see there really isn’t any overlap between the two projects. On one hand I do get why people are curious, but I dunno, I guess I wish people would get that I wouldn’t put my name on something and allow it to become this massive overlap on Fun., that was never the intention with making this and I love being in both Fun. and Bleachers.
It’s funny you bring that overlap up because something people usually don’t notice is what a commitment it is not only making an album but releasing/promoting it. If you’re making an album you’re at least dedicating a year after the fact to promote it.
Jack: Yeah, it’s definitely a level of stress that comes into play. Though even with that I feel like it should never hold you back from making what you want to make. There were times when that came into mind with Bleachers but I knew these were songs that I had to make and had to put out there so the stress that comes along with promoting it, whether it be a tour or an interview like this, it’s just something that goes hand in hand with it really.
I remember last year at the last Steel Train show we talked briefly before you went on and we talked about how it was nerve-wrecking about being the center of attention again as the front-man, but I remember the second I saw live photos of Bleachers you had this confidence about you that made it seem like you were comfortable being at the front and center again. Do you feel more comfortable doing that now and does it feel natural being the front-man again?
Jack: It does and it doesn’t in a weird way but at the end of the day it’s kind of me tapping into different parts of my personality. It’s kind of like how it feels natural being asleep just as much as it feels to be awake. And both of those things, having different parts of your personality at play, is really just an easily natural thing to tap into. Something that’s been surprising me has been seeing people take to it who probably don’t know about Fun. or Steel Train even, the fact that people can see me on stage and go with it definitely feels nice.
That is really interesting, would you say that it’s been going easier than you imagined that it would?
Jack: I had a lot of stress about playing live, specifically the rehearsal process. It mostly was because even with being the front-man I couldn’t completely control, where when I was recording the songs I had complete control. Everything about the Bleachers songs have a technical aspect to it but the live show turned out to be a much more different monster than I was expecting it to be. There were a lot of things that came into play that I just had no experience with and couldn’t do, so to have this project being done and having to figure out how to bring it to life it was just a bit overwhelming. That said; I am really happy with how it came along and the band mates that I have now certainly fit perfectly with what I want to do with Bleachers in a live setting.
It was a great realization during the first show because there was so much going on before that show, I had no idea how it was going to come together but there was a moment on stage during that show when I realized that this could work and sound the way that it needed to sound.
That definitely sounds like experience coming into play, especially with your history of being in bands your entire life.
Jack: I think so too, though it’s definitely one of those things that no matter how great of a musician you are, not that I’m trying to say I’m a ‘great musician’ but just no matter how experienced you are, the first show of any project you’re in is going to be tough. Something that always happens is that you’ll get to the fifth show, look back on the first show and think ‘Jesus…what the fuck was that?’. (laughs) But the first show is something you have to do to get over it.
Have you guys played five shows yet or will the Williamsburg show be the fifth show?
Jack: We’ve…oh wow, the Williamsburg show will be the fifth show!
So you basically just promised me that it’ll be the best Bleachers show…ok I’ll definitely have to quote you on that!
Jack: Go right ahead, sweet.
So I’m curious to know, whoa are your band mates for Bleachers and what made you feel as though they were right for this project?
Jack: It was a combination of a lot of things. One of the guys is John, who was also part of Steel Train. That’s a relationship that I felt was perfect to bring into this project, as where the other three guys were people that I needed know as well, so it felt like a great sense of contrast and a bit of conflict. I mean the other guys are great so conflict isn’t exactly the word I’d use, but it is how I’d describe that uncertainty, a bit of mental
conflict towards how everything is going to play out. Having new people in a band brings in a bit of new energy that I think is important.
Something that blew me away was learning about how the album for Bleachers was created. With it being made in so many different places: do you feel that it has a bit of DNA of all those places or do you feel the album is much more introspective than that?
Jack: It is very introspective, definitely more than I intended it to be. So with that, I’d have to say that it doesn’t retain DNA of those places but it definitely does have elements of the space I was within these places. That feeling of being away is there, that feeling of feeling disconnected, jetlagged, all of these time zones…it just all comes into play. I think it makes the album feel a bit more obscure if you delve into it more past the first listen, especially the aspect of making the album in pieces, which is something I had no concept of before doing Bleachers. That within itself was very challenging to wrap my head around but it felt very natural creating the album in that way. And now it feels like it makes much more
sense for me to work in that way.
Was the challenge of doing that difficult or did it feel much more fluid as you progressed through the albums creation? Because that way of doing things, the fact that it was new to you, does that mean you were avoiding doing things that way beforehand with Fun. or other projects?
Jack: It’s mostly time that comes into play with something like that. With Fun. there’s always studio time set-aside specifically with a release and budget in mind. With Bleachers it was hotel rooms and wherever I could get something done so when it came to it, making the album, it just made sense wrapping it up that way. Also, again with time, I knew of the window in which I’d be able to release the album so that also played in part of all that, knowing how and when I’d want to release it but having it as a bit of a mental desire as opposed to being written on a chalk board in a studio. I really like that the elapsed time between the album’s creation and release isn’t as intense with a typical album release. Usually with an album release there’s a six to twelve month gap in between and when the album comes out you’re a totally different person. With this Bleachers album I feel…well…it’ll sound a bit corny saying this but I feel like it’s a very vivid postcard of where my life is now at the moment.
Ha, I was actually going to ask if that’s what you’d call this album, ‘a postcard of your life’.
Jack: Yeah, I’d very much so would call it that. I didn’t really keep a diary or anything like that while I was away touring so this is definitely the closest anyone is ever going to get of that.
Wow, and what a better way to do it than with music, huh?
Jack: Yeah totally (laughs).
So when we mentioned ‘alternative projects’ before we talked about the misconceptions people have with them. One of those that we haven’t touched upon yet is livelihood of an alternative project. People tend to see them as one-off type of occurrences and I was wondering, when it comes to Bleachers, do you feel that’s at all the case? Do you feel that Bleachers can co-exist with Fun.?
Jack: Absolutely, all of that really. I want to take Bleachers further than I could even imagine right now and I honestly wouldn’t put my name on something if I didn’t feel compelled to take it as far as it can go. I wouldn’t work this hard on something if it didn’t mean something to me. It’s just something that I don’t take very lightly, making an album and then playing it. A lot of people tend to apologize for side projects in a weird way where they’ll utilize their main project as a fall back, like ‘I’m part of this band so I have to go back to it’ and even though I’m dedicated to Fun., I do want to be just as committed to Bleachers.
Well that’s a very interesting stance to see you utilize with Bleachers, especially since the album hasn’t been released yet. Usually by now we’d have more songs to delve into but with you doing interviews like this it’s almost as though you’re painting a picture that’s vivid yet can’t be seen yet.
Jack: Well that definitely wasn’t the idea but it’s not something I mind very much (laughs).
Ha, well I definitely can’t argue with that, it’s certainly been effective in spurring curiosity towards Bleachers. This will be my last question, before I ask it I just want to say thanks for taking the time to talk today and it’s been brilliant talking to you again after all this time.
Jack: Thanks for talking!
Absolutely. My last question is: which track surprised you with how it turned out in the recording process and is this also the track ou’re most excited to have people hear live?
Jack: There’s a song called ‘Reckless Love’ that’s one of the most important songs I was working on, which inherently means it was also one of the hardest songs to work on. But there was this breakthrough that I had with the song by just changing the drums. It was just so weird to me how one little thing that was always there could be shifted to make something work beautifully. I feel like it has a very different mood from the rest of the songs of the album, but a mood that doesn’t completely divert your attention on the album. Like if these songs had to be placed in a circle I’d say that ‘Reckless Love’ would be found in the middle of that circle. It’s really been working well live, and it’s a great example of how the live setting can dramatically change a song. When I was making the album I imagined it as a bit of a mellow song but live its just grown into being this monster track.
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