A few years ago, while working on his third album under the name Bleachers, Jack Antonoff wrote a stinging song called Art Bro. Zooming from his apartment in Brooklyn on a Sunday afternoon in mid-September, he recites a few of the lyrics to me: “Jock to art bro, Gordon Gecko […] You’re at the Chateau, blowing snowglobes […] But the girls are 20, and it’s getting sketchy.”
The track expresses Antonoff’s growing feeling that, in the past few years, the American bro archetype has shifted from muscled football player to faux-intellectual sleaze. “We’ve created this point where, as art has become sexier – quite literally – all the jocks, they’re all like, creative directors now,” he says, animated behind his trademark black, thick-rimmed glasses. “The same guy that would weep reading you his Leonard Cohen first edition poetry book is also the guy who will just try to fuck you.”
But Art Bro is yet to see the light of day. It is not the kind of song that had a place on any of Antonoff’s first three albums as Bleachers, the solo-project-turned-band he founded in 2014 (although he did manage to slip the phrase into a recent remix of Anti-Hero, his latest megahit with longtime collaborator Taylor Swift).
From the beginning of his career, first as a member of indie band Steel Train, then as part of early-2010s trio Fun – who had a massive hit in 2012 with We Are Young – and now as one of the most in-demand producers among pop’s A‑list (Taylor, The 1975, Lana and Lorde among them) the 39-year-old has cultivated an image as an earnest, sensitive writer and collaborator. It’s a reputation that’s won him eight Grammys, countless devotees and – as you’d expect with anyone who’s achieved such cultural saturation – quite a few haters too.
The first three Bleachers albums – 2014’s Strange Desire, 2017’s Gone Now and 2021’s Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night – were profoundly coloured by the loss of his younger sister, Sarah, who died from brain cancer at the age of 13 in 2001. (His older sister is the fashion designer Rachel Antonoff.) In the years following Sarah’s death, Antonoff “started getting into this style of writing about something simple and then constantly mirroring it back to my loss.”
But Antonoff says he’s “always” written what he calls “roast songs” in the style of Art Bro. “They never made their way onto the album because it’s like, ‘Why is this guy roasting the culture after he’s telling me about the death of his sister?’ Like, that doesn’t congeal,” he says. “It would have been deeply destructive to the character [of Saturday Night] if out of nowhere I was like, ‘Fuck these dudes who are dressing like artists, but are basically jocks.’”
That changes – at least a little – on Antonoff’s forthcoming, as-yet-untitled Bleachers album, which will be released early next year via Dirty Hit. (Bleachers’ signing was announced alongside a joint venture with Dirty Hit founder Jamie Oborne.) Looser and funnier than past Bleachers records, the six songs that I’ve heard from the record eschew the moony, occasionally bitter sense of yearning that’s pervaded Antonoff’s past solo work.
Lead single Modern Girl – while “in no way a comment about gender specifically” – is partially about how, despite living in an era of performative righteousness, “everyone’s on the same bullshit. I look around the internet, I see girls shaking their ass, I see guys acting like assholes,” he says. “Obviously that’s not the entire world, but it made me smile to put it that way.” Antonoff sees himself as an equal-opportunity critic: halfway into the song, it turns into a cascade of in-jokes about his own bandmates and his reputation in pop music: “New Jersey’s finest New Yorker/Unreliable reporter/Pop music hoarder.”
Alma, a new song featuring longtime collaborator Lana Del Rey – they’ve made three albums together since 2019 – slips between free-associative pop culture references and a joyride around a dreamworld version of New Jersey. The rest of the album contains references to Kendall Jenner, the death of Kobe Bryant, and Dimes Square – the much-discussed downtown New York scene associated with newspaper The Drunken Canal, the controversial podcast Red Scare, and a loose network of artists and musicians: “I wanted to connect this album a little more to what it’s like to be sitting in a room with me,” Antonoff says. In other words: chatty, playful, occasionally quite sarcastic.
Antonoff says meeting his now-wife, the actress Margaret Qualley, sparked this shift in his writing. He refers to her only as “my wife” or “the person I wish to spend eternity with” during our conversation. (The pair tied the knot in August, at a ceremony in New Jersey attended by Swift, Del Rey, and Zoe Kravitz.) “I felt this thing inside of me, an entirely new way of wanting to talk about myself and my experiences,” he says. “I’m not writing about myself as someone who can’t be in the moment because I’m struggling with grief.”
Hence a song like Jesus Is Dead, a kind of eulogy for the New York scenes that Antonoff has witnessed from the fringes over the past 20 years. Antonoff has long said that growing up in New Jersey, separated from the cultural centre of New York by only a river, has made him feel forever like an outsider, even after he moved to NYC in 2012. Jesus Is Dead plays like a potted history of New York subcultures, beginning in the present: “A kid I used to babysit drinks himself off a Dimes Square bench.”
Antonoff says he “was interested in writing about [Dimes Square], and it made me think about [2000s New York indie band] Longwave and that whole time, and [early-2000s downtown club night] Misshapes, and [the influential dance label] DFA.” Where New York’s culture could once be defined by specific movements – from The Strokes-era downtown crowd to Brooklyn-centred bands such as Grizzly Bear – Antonoff feels that the NYC scene “finally just is over”.
“Any [NYC] scenes going on, there’s no real centre to them,” he argues. “There’s no great artistic export. Like, say what you want about downtown in the early-2000s, but goddamn, those first few Strokes albums! Say what you want about the Brooklyn moment in Williamsburg, you could roast it to hell and back, but Jesus fucking Christ, some of that music is just absolutely timeless. [Dimes Square] still falls under this thing where it’s like, well, what’s the export? What’s the book, what’s the band? The toxic podcast can’t be the genius cultural export.”
Antonoff finds the cynicism of said toxic podcast – Red Scare, a show hosted by Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova that has been associated, by some critics, with the “new right” – to be “boring on a level that can’t even be described. Because you just know where it ends, every single time, and where it ends is not in the centre of the circle. It’s not at the heart of things. And there’s no such thing as cynical music.”
A few days later, I call Antonoff again. This time when he pops up on the Zoom window, he’s swaddled in a duvet, holing up with the assumption that he has Covid, given that nearly everyone he was in a session with the week prior has come down with it. Qualley comes in to leave Antonoff a test. “I love you so much,” he says, before warning her: “I’m on a press Zoom, so don’t say anything crazy.” On cue, Qualley screams “PENIS!”, prompting Antonoff to dive into a bit: “My wife and I would like to apologise for when she said penis. We support penises – it’s not that we don’t support penises!”
Almost anything you read about Antonoff will zero in on his work as a producer, trying to crack the code as to why so many epoch-defining stars have enlisted him to work on their records in the years since Swift tapped him for her colossal 2014 album 1989. Antonoff says that “if that was a tellable story, someone would have told it.”
For him, that particular line of questioning is frustrating: “Sometimes I’m like, ‘I don’t know motherfuckers. Ask a painter how they paint’, you know?” he says. “I feel like if you actually drill down past the questions, what I’m really confronted with is a complete misunderstanding of what writing and production actually is.”
Culturally, there’s a fixation on the “Antonoff sound”, a term that could mean, variously: bombastic ’80s synths; 70s folk-rock; sleek modern pop; or treacly balladwork. The merits of this “sound” are widely debated.
“I have friends who will be like, ‘I met this guy who really hated you, but then we kept talking and they love the first Bleachers album and think Norman [Fucking Rockwell] is Lana’s best album,’” he says. (He stops for a moment to do his Covid test: “Who wants colour for their piece? Who wants colour for their piece?” he chimes, swab deep in his nose. “You’re like, ‘This better test positive.’” It later shows up negative.) “I’m a bit fascinated about how much some of the people who don’t connect with what I do are listening to the actual records I make.”
Perhaps given that Antonoff’s production covers such a wide range of genres, it’s not a sound that people are responding to, but a feeling. It’s hard, for example, to draw a sonic line between Swift’s divisive 2017 album Reputation, an album of haunted trap beats and love-drunk ballads, and Del Rey’s 2021 album Chemtrails Over The Country Club, a hushed, insular folk album. He describes both as “revisionist history albums”.
“Reputation, at this point, is fucking goated. It’s the fucking shit – I just love that album to the fucking moon and back,” he says. “I remember making that [album] and loving it. I feel like that album was met with some amount of cynicism, then cut to a few years later, it’s like, nope, everyone loves it. Taylor and I do talk about that a lot: You make what you make, because you believe in it, and sometimes you get your flowers right away and sometimes it takes a minute.”
He noticed a similar response to Chemtrails. “After the height of Norman, everyone was like, ‘Well, hold on a second here.’ Norman is so lush and expansive, and Chemtrails is like this whisper, which is intentional, we were talking about making it so small,” he says. “It was in no way poorly received, but I do think Norman cast a big shadow.”
I bring up a viral essay titled Dream of Antonoffication, which was published in the NYC literary magazine The Drift earlier this year. In the piece, writer Mitch Therieau posits that “Antonoff’s hollow maximalism is the empty bigness, the simultaneously brash and ignorable ubiquity, of pop music itself in the age of streaming” – all while heaping praise on Norman. (There’s no shortage of column inches debating Antonoff’s work: The Ringer dinged him for his tendency toward maximalism. One Pitchfork writer describes him as having “flattened the sound of that niche between mainstream pop and indie”.) Antonoff says the idea that he’s “a child of the algorithm” – his summation of the Drift essay, based on what his dad told him about it – is “absurd, literal absurdity.”
Although he appreciates the essay’s praise of Norman (“That’s cool, Norman’s really good”) Antonoff doesn’t seem at all phased by this kind of critique. “Those lit people always have a hard time with me because I live in their area in Brooklyn – they can’t figure out where to put me and how to do it. I almost feel like that community got real mad after Norman because they’re like, ‘Oh, we like this,’” he says. “Maybe I’m not for them to cover. Maybe they’re better off just sitting down with David Byrne – God bless him, of course.”
Antonoff says that his motivation, and his process, has rarely wavered since he first began producing; he and his collaborators dream “about what a record can be,” and sometimes that results in “really transcendent shit” and sometimes it doesn’t. There is no way, he says, to “optimise” his process, because there’s no formula. “I do think that there’s a misconception about what I do and what pop music is,” he says. “There’s a certain group of people who think it’s about appealing to the masses, [which is] not how I feel. I’ve never made anything hoping that everyone would like it.”
His closest collaborators – like Swift and Del Rey – are people with whom he feels like he can “drill even further” into one sound or idea, a feeling he describes as “crazy magic”. But the goal is never to top the charts, or appeal to every possible listener.
“I remember with Norman, Lana wanted to give the mastering engineer her credit card over the phone because she barely wanted anyone to know that the album was being made,” he says. “These records are so insular, so it’s a little hard to get it up for someone who has a hot take when [these albums] are reaching the people who they’re intended to reach. It’s cool if you get it and it’s cool if you don’t, but also like, there’s always the option to just shut the fuck up.”
Fundamentally, Antonoff doesn’t have any specific answer as to why his work has permeated pop music so intensely. “Sometimes I feel like because I’ve occupied so much space in culture over the past decade or something, I’m also expected to be like a scholar on why this is happening,” he says. “And my answer has always been the same: I don’t know, the fucking music?”