Jack Antonoff Talks Bleachers Docuseries & Holding Nothing Back (Seriously, This Guy Shares Everything)
If you've gone to a music festival in the last few years, you've probably seen that for a lot of bands, it's become less about the sounds than the antics: the holograms, the light shows, the celebrities feeding gummy bears to their friends. A few acts, though, manage to keep the focus on bringing good music to adoring fans, using the festival stage to enhance their set, not distract from it — and no one does it better than Jack Antonoff of Bleachers, whose docuseries “Thank You And Sorry” premiered last week. At Bonnaroo earlier this month, the musician's set was hailed as one of the festival's best, lively and loud and full of frenzied, anthemic energy, and while that may be unusual for some, for Antonoff, it was pretty much just another day in the life. Well, almost.
"Bonnaroo was a pretty special moment that I feel like was the culmination of a lot of things," he says, speaking to Bustle over the phone. "It was just really wild, they were singing every word... it just felt like a lot of the past couple years was leading up to that."
That's putting it lightly; Antonoff has been working practically since junior high, when his band, Outline, began touring the country in his parents' van. In the years since, he's formed one band, Steel Train, that gained fame touring with Tegan and Sara; another, Fun., that grew very famous, thanks to songs like "We Are Young" and "Some Nights;" and now, finally, there's Bleachers, his long-awaited solo project that's quickly become one of the best pop-rock acts around. There's also the songs he's written for people like Taylor Swift and Sara Bareilles, the tour he's about to embark on with Charli XCX, and the project he just released, a Google Play docuseries called Thank You and Sorry. The six-part series is a mix of scripted material and real-life moments from the Bleachers tour, and it's Antonoff's most ambitious project yet — which, considering his career so far, is saying a lot.
"I've always thought [about doing a docuseries]," he says. "But I wanted to figure out a way to make it work that feels as bizarre as it actually is to do... on tour, you don’t really know the line between performance and just being a human being."
The series is a fascinating look at Antonoff's life on tour, combining live Bleachers performances, meetings with managers (including hilarious cameos from Olivia Wilde and Colin Quinn), and moments of real introspection; in one notable scene, the musician discusses the possibility of cheating on his girlfriend, while in another, he leads the camera through a tour of his dead sister's bedroom. At times it's pure entertainment, at others a serious look at the oddity of Antonoff's life; all of it is compelling, a truly unique project that merges the singer's reality with his Bleachers facade into one boldly honest take.
"It’s in my line of work to connect," he says. "There's nothing I didn't include. I think I crossed that line years ago and never really looked back. With the music and the lyrics, I’ve always gone to those places, and I’ve always understood the risk of it becoming complicated by sharing too much with too many people... but I feel like I’m doing something that matters."
One of Antonoff's biggest goals with Thank You was to make the singular universal, and he succeeds masterfully. Even the most rock star-esque moments — performing on stage, meeting with executives — feel intimate, thanks to Antonoff's banter with fans and amusingly relatable quotes ("Is that a thing?" he asks dubiously in one episode, after being told to say "The Chi" during a visit to a Chicago radio station). And for the more somber ones, like those discussing the death of his sister (Sarah, who died when he was a teenager; his other sister, Rachel, is a fashion designer), he's just as candid, more than willing to put his most personal moments on camera.
"The more you don’t talk about something, the more separate you feel from people in the world," he explains. "And when you do talk about it, you find that everyone’s gone through that, and then you’re like 'oh, holy shit,' you know? You realize that a lot of our experiences are way more shared than we like to let on. And it doesn’t make it better, but it makes it more tolerable."
For Antonoff, it was his first panic attack ("I thought there was something profoundly wrong with me," he says) that led him to realize the necessity of sharing in order to cope. In the series, there's significant focus on his music's impact on fans, how it's shaped and helped them over the years; one poignant scene involves a mother and her daughters talking about how the singer's music has helped them get through the father's move out, and during the Bleachers performances, much of the crowd look moved to tears.
Says Antonoff, "I always thought like, you could be the kind of artist who’s idolized by your fans or comforted by your fans, and I always thought the latter seemed more interesting and more human."
For the musician, making the docuseries was its own form of therapy, helping him process the strange reality of his life over the past few years: two bands, bestselling albums, Grammy nominations and a nod from the Golden Globes. Certain scenes and performances are imbued with emotion, and it's hard not to hear moments like Antonoff shouting the lyrics to "I Wanna Get Better" without sensing some serious turmoil.
"There’ve been parts when I’m touring where songs were about just like, spewing out the lyrics and the music," he says, "And there were points where the songs were about an actual time and specific feeling about trying to get better or trying to move on. You just get fueled by different energy."
For Antonoff, the touring itself is a kind of catharsis; having done it for so long, he's drawn to the "muscle memory" of repeating the same action night after night in the midst of so much other change.
"In some ways, it’s shifted so much," he says. "The hotel rooms are nicer, and the crowds are bigger, and this has shifted and that has shifted, but physically, my body is doing the same thing — going from city to city, getting on a plane, eating breakfast in a new place, playing the show, eating at one in the morning in a hotel room. The settings do shift, but there’s this comfort in the actual physicality being the same for years."
It also helps that he's constantly surrounded by friends and family, and even includes them in his work; Thank You features appearances from Mae Whitman, Sara Quin, and Lena Dunham (Antonoff's girlfriend) among others, people the singer cast because he thought "in that capacity," [they] could do something really exciting." The series also includes celebrities he's less familiar with but wanted to have roles, people he "fantasized about" being included, like Rosie Perez, who plays his girlfriend.
Yet for all the cameos, it's the touring that's the series' real focus, much to Antonoff's pleasure ("that, I think, on a human level can never be not interesting," he says). He's about to embark on Bleachers' second, a set of summer dates with Charli XCX. He and the "Fancy" singer seem nothing alike, but Antonoff describes them as being "in a similar space within the different things that we do." He says the tour will be "odd and different," and that it'll act as a debut of some of his new songs. And, if all goes as planned, it'll provide plenty of material for Thank You's second season; he says that he's only just starting to formulate an idea of what that series would be like, but he knows he wants it to be, again, primarily about the music.
"I like of the idea of having this thing sort of weave in and out of record cycles," he says, "[where] I’m using this as a way to further comment on the records I’m making."
If he seems a bit obsessed, he is; Antonoff is fully aware that music takes up every inch of his life. He says that he's constantly struggling to find healthier things to fill his time, "like a hobby or something," but it never works. His extracurriculars are still all music: co-writing songs, producing albums, creating a docuseries about his tour. Not that he minds too much, though. In fact, he embraces the cross-over.
Says Antonoff, "It keeps what I do not the thing I run away from."
Images: Google Play; Getty Images (2)