California gets the love, and New York gets the glory, but it’s New Jersey that’s somehow the anthem state of America. From Bon Jovi and The Four Seasons through to modern acts like Titus Andronicus and the Gaslight Anthem, there’s something about the Garden State that seems to inspire the sort of widescreen, heart-on-sleeve musical sentiments perfectly suited to road trips and rock concerts alike. Is it the water? The air? The Boss?
Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, a fellow New Jerseyan and no stranger to rock dramatics himself, believes the state’s anthemic fortitude is a result of being just slightly removed from the city that never sleeps.
“What’s special about New Jersey is it’s five, 10 miles right outside of the greatest place in the universe, New York City, which creates a really interesting environment,” says Antonoff, speaking on the phone the day following a Bleachers performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. “New Jersey is constantly in the shadows, constantly looking in the window of the party. And you grow up with that feeling. You grow up knowing you’re like the alternate younger brother or something.”
“A lot of bands from New York have like a shoegaze, ‘don’t care’ attitude, because it’s kind of all going on there in the first place, and I think bands from New Jersey have a reason to be more anthemic because there’s a lot less happening in the places they’re from. New York music will never have to fight for a place in the conversation, but New Jersey music will always have to.”
Being part of that conversation is incredibly important to Antonoff, best known for his work in Fun. (and, in the celebrity press, for his romantic attachment to Lena Dunham) but who also had a solid 10-year career as the frontman and songwriter of the band Steel Train. Bleachers, his new solo project, has the energy of a rock act but a decidedly pop sensibility that sounds radio-ready from the first note. The songs on Bleachers’ debut, Strange Desire, glisten with big synthesizer riffs, spunky guitar hooks, and chopped-up drum beats — and Antonoff doesn’t shy away from the p-word in the slightest.
“I don’t think pop is a bad thing; bad pop is a bad thing,” he says, listing off a series of acts he’d consider “pop” in their time, from the Beatles and Beach Boys through to the Smashing Pumpkins. “They were in pop culture and on pop radio. And the thread between all those bands is they had a big impact on the world and they were exciting because everyone was listening to it and commenting on it.”
Bleachers began to take shape about two years ago, just as Fun. were in the middle of their massive commercial breakthrough thanks to big hits like “We Are Young” and “Some Nights.” Antonoff continued to write new material during that time, collecting beats and hooks as he went, but for a long time was unsure if it was a project of its own. Eventually, the songs began to gel into an album and he adopted the name Bleachers, an ode to the suburban backdrop reflected in many of the songs. Choosing to embrace a different moniker, rather than use his own name or continuing with Steel Train, reflected Antonoff’s desire for a musical clean slate.
“It’s just it being new,” he explains. “There’s an amount of artistic baggage that comes along with a name. Or, if a band has a fanbase, there are only certain chances you can take, or sometimes you take chances that are too big because you’re over thinking it; you want to shock. But when you’re starting something new there’s nothing reactionary, there’s nothing coming from anything else. You’re just doing it to do it; you’re not doing it in any context.”
That said, Bleachers may be a new project, but its sound is somewhat familiar. Strange Desire’s aesthetic owes a great deal to 1980s pop — think John Hughes films, OMD, “prom night with glitter” moments. Fetishizing that era is hardly novel in 2014, but Antonoff says his interest in modernizing old sounds is no trendhopping: it’s a genuine appreciation for the era’s soundscapes and reflects his interest in paying proper respect.
“I just love the sonics. It was really the golden age of what a lot of pop sounds like now. I would say that artists like Katy Perry should cut [musician] Vince Clark, like, a million dollar cheque just because all those records sound sort of like dumbed-down Erasure and Depeche Mode records. It’s a lot of the same sounds; they’re just less interesting. I thought it would be interesting to go back to the worth of that sound, the world that sound inhabits.”
Songs like Bleachers’ first single “I Wanna Get Better” pair that catchy soundscape with heavy, at times quite intense personal lyrics. The words are rife with angst and despair, but — like with all great anthems — the music suggests hope.
“It’s the right combination of music that’s really bombastic, and you can focus on that and you can put it on at a party, or you can listen to the lyrics in bed and put a microscope on them and dissect the whole thing,” says Antonoff. “Having both angles there, that’s the biggest theme on the album.”
[magazine month=”August” year=”2014"]