Jack Antonoff on Growing Up in New Jersey: 'There Was This Darkness'

Andrew Hetherington
Jack Antonoff's childhood bedroom in Woodcliff Lake, N.J.

A little more than two years ago, Jack Antonoff celebrated Fun's No. 1 single, "We Are Young," in an unusual way: by starting to write songs for a new band, Bleachers. "The Beatles did 12 songs every six months," says Antonoff, who chafes at the idea that if you’re as successful as Fun was with its second album, Some Nights -- 5.1 million sold, with "We Are Young" moving another 7 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- you get the chance to make and tour just 12 new songs every three-and-a-half years. "Everybody should have two bands if you look at it like that. Everyone should have 10 f—ing bands. It's not enough."

Check Out Jack Antonoff's Childhood Bedroom

Antonoff is the very definition of a man-child -- boyish looking and not one to shy away from expressions or attire that could be described as pixie-ish, he's forceful and clear when discussing his music. He remains so attached to his childhood that he likes to say he has only recently, at age 30, moved out of his parents' house in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. (In truth, he got a place in Manhattan a year-and-a-half ago with his older sister, fashion designer Rachel Antonoff, and now lives with his girlfriend, Lena Dunham, in Brooklyn Heights.) On a recent Sunday, he made the drive back to Jersey to show Billboard the wellspring of his creativity: the childhood bedroom he calls an art project. And also to clean up his stuff. His parents were redoing the floors and replacing the carpets.

In Fun, Antonoff plays guitar, and the trio shares songwriting credit. For Bleachers' Strange Desire (which debuts at No. 11 on the Billboard 200 dated Aug. 2), he wrote alone and played almost every instrument. An obsessive who traces his commitment to music back to trading in some Stars Wars collectibles for a Gibson SG guitar, he had Bleachers focus on music made around the time he was born, 1984. He describes the result as "sonically '80s, emotionally '90s." The songs are both grand and raw -- Depeche Mode and Bruce Springsteen were touchstones -- and they capture the "hopeful darkness" of growing up in the suburbs. "There was this darkness about being from New Jersey," he says. "We're in the shadow of the greatest place in the world, New York City."

There are other shadows for Antonoff, as well. The death of his younger sister, Sarah, from cancer at 13, when he was 18, left him with more-or-less permanent anxiety, which he sings about on Bleachers' first single, "I Wanna Get Better." "Worst-case-scenario thinking -- I go down this rabbit hole with the way I'm wired, and it can make life very unenjoyable. So I try to stop myself as much as I can." But getting better doesn’t mean moving on from his feelings of loss. "Those aren’t the ones that torture me. Those are the ones that drive me." 

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of Billboard magazine.


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