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Messages in Bottles

BY BREN DAVIES | PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRIAN T. SILAK

Jack Antonoff interview at his WSDG design recording studio in Brooklyn, NY with Tape Op magazine.

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Born in Bergenfield, New Jersey, Jack Antonoff has performed, recorded, and toured with the bands Outline, Steel Train, fun., Bleachers, and, most recently, Red Hearse, with a self-titled album released in 2019. He has co-written with (and/or produced) Taylor Swift, St. Vincent [Tape Op #134], Lorde, Lana Del Rey, Carly Rae Jepsen, Pink, and Sara Bareilles – basically a Who’s Who of recent pop stars. He’s won four Grammys, and he’s even started his own music festival, Shadow of the City, in New Jersey. He produced the soundtrack for the 2018 film Love, Simon, which includes four Bleachers songs. Brian and I caught up with Jack at his Walters-Storyk designed home studio in Brooklyn, NY.

You maintain a busy writing, recording, performing, and touring schedule, with multiple simultaneous projects. Is it ever hard to keep track of so many events?

When you read it like that, it sounds like more than it is. At any given time, I actually consider myself to have less going on than a lot of other people I know who do what I do. It’s because the focus is on albums. Me and Kevin Abstract made an album that took a month [ARIZONA BABY]. Right now, I’m making an album with the Dixie Chicks that’s going on two years. If you make albums, you can do different projects at once, because it’s more of a meditative thing – it’s all-existing. I’ll be working on one project and think, “Okay, these songs need help,” and then I’ll spend a couple of hours there. I’ll go into a session with these people [whom] I’ve been working on this long project with for a week, and then everybody goes their separate ways. You take a step back. To have these ongoing album projects, it actually enables me to jump around more, because they’re living and breathing. They’re almost like family. How do you have time for friends and family? Well, I don’t spend every day with them. If I go on vacation with my family somewhere, I’ll be focused and spend time with them. Then I’ll come back and spend time with my girlfriend, and I’ll be focused and spend time with her. I think that’s what albums are. It comes up a lot where people have this idea that it’s this crazy output, but sometimes these things take a long time. Sometimes they line up where it seems like they’re just firing out, [and then] there’s a period when nothing’s coming out. I’m in this period now where a lot of records are coming out.

You appear to be continually productive.

I sleep eight hours a night. I travel and tour a lot. I try to put the focus on the bigger picture and not get too lost in the minutiae. That’s what it’s all about. Making records, albums, songs – anything – I make it so it feels good, and I’m not convincing myself that it feels good because of how I did it. I get all the way under the hood and do it in a way that feels interesting – if you want to put that microscope on it. Obviously, you guys [Tape Op] are gear-related. You can have everything dialed in perfectly; the greatest gear in the world – the board they did this on, and the mic they did that on. They’re tools to get you somewhere. You want to have all that going so that if magic happens, you capture it in an exciting way. I’ve been in a lot of situations where something magical happened, but it wasn’t captured well.

You’ve said that the whole point to writing songs and making records is to relate to people. How does Jack Antonoff relate to his fans through his music, his songwriting, and through his productions?

I don’t think that the point of writing songs and writing music is to relate to people. I might have said that, but I actually think that the point of releasing music is to relate to people. A lot of times, I write and record music I don’t intend to release, and I’m doing it to feel myself. Maybe the long-term goal is to find an interesting bass line that’ll go somewhere, but I’m just having a good time. Releasing music is an act of throwing a message in a bottle and sending it out into the ocean. The nature of releasing music – and writing and recording music that you know you’re gonna release – is somewhat a cry for help; but really it’s more like a call. It’s like shouting, “Does anyone else feel this way too?” Everyone’s DNA comes out in everything [they record]. For example, the way you EQ a mic: are you someone who wants to have it bright and have [the listener] feel like they’re talking right to you? Do you want it to feel distant? It’s fascinating how all these things are expressions of the soul. To release that music; you’re trying to find your own little tribe, your people who hear it. Take Nine Inch Nails: all of those albums sound a very specific way, even the ones that are a departure. Or David Bowie, who made so many different styles of music; there’s still this common thread that if you get it, you get it. Releasing music is just asking if anyone’s having a similar experience to you. That’s why so many people who make records didn’t relate super well early in life – at least a lot of people I know. They use this medium to find people all over the world, because maybe in their small town they didn’t find enough people.

What was your first recording setup like?

When I was in my house in New Jersey, I had a laptop. I had a [Shure] SM7 going right into the interface – not going through anything. I think it was the first Mbox. I was recording on cassette when I was a kid. I was always super into recording. When I was 12 years-old, I was taping everything. I recorded my band called The Fizz from ‘97. Early recordings were on little cassette recorders. Then I saved up and got this weird Zip disk recorder, the Roland VS-840. It was massive, and the latency was out of control. It was almost impossible to multitrack, but I did. From there, [I worked with] local studios that had ADAT. It was that super shitty phase of recording when it was post-tape and pre-Pro Tools. At some point, that first Mbox came out. I recorded on that forever. At that point, I had no concept of anything. I’d turn the knob until it hit red. I’d only seen Pro Tools in big studios. There was this guy named John Naclerio at Nada Recording in Newburgh, New York. He would record us and let us come in for a month for $1,500. It was on ADAT; punching and punching to try to get the punch right. Why weren’t we recording on tape? Obviously, it was the cost issue. Then he got Pro Tools, and it was mind-blowing. My old band, Outline, was his first Pro Tools recording. It was so cool because of the options.

You’ve recorded in L.A., Atlanta, New York, and other cities, and have spoken about differences in the vibe, sound, and feel from city to city. When you’re not working here in your home studio, what are some of your other favorite places?

When I was growing up in New Jersey, I would move the recording session to my room, to the basement, to my sister’s room, to the living room. Spaces are important, and you can burn them out. At one point, I burned this space out, and now I’m falling back in love with it. I did a number of records in a row in here. I started to hear myself repeating myself, because it almost gets too easy and everything’s good to go. I love Electric Lady Studios. I’ve been spending a ton of time there. I have a room at Electric Lady, so when I’m in New York I bounce back and forth between here and there. Electric Lady’s one of the greatest places on earth – it’s one of the most important studios, historically. It’s an honor to be there. You get to walk around in [Washington Square Park] and think. The park is very unchanged, by the nature of college students and drug addicts always being themselves no matter what’s going on in the world. I spend a lot of time there. In L.A., I’m usually at Conway [Recording Studios], which is also one of my favorite studios in the world. Every room there has a Neve [console] that I love for different reasons. I spend time at Henson [Recording Studios, formerly A&M Studios]. That’s a great place. One place I’m dying to go to is Candy Bomber in Berlin. I heard about it from Nick Cave’s people. I saw them recently at Conway, and they were saying how brilliant [Candy Bomber] was. There’s a studio called La Fabrique in France, where they do Mix With The Masters. I want to check that place out. I try not to go to big studios, unless I go somewhere for a specific reason. Obviously in L.A., I’m at a [big] studio. I took the band up to a place called Outlier Inn in upstate New York, which is an interesting studio. In Atlanta, we were at Atlanta Doppler Studios – a wonderful place. I’ve worked all over the world, and I basically work every day, so I almost see it like gathering. It’s more about working in the quiet of a hotel room, or finding bizarre sounds in the town, and bringing that back [to the studio]. If I’m out traveling, I’ll record as much as possible, go to my hotel room, do a ton of editing, and then bring it back to here, Electric Lady, or Conway. I’ll sift through and decide in those spaces, where I know what it sounds like. My whole plan with a room is have it ready to go and have tricks everywhere, with mics in every corner; no fiddling, and I can have options. Picture this: you’re sitting at the piano, so we’re going to record stereo mics on the piano, obviously. But then why not also throw up that Telefunken and the Wunder Audio CM7 because we’re doing vocals all over the room? My favorite is a [Rode NT5] stereo pair, which gets the coolest room sound. Now you have one piano take, plus all these other possibilities that, if you didn’t have, you would sit there and try to create with plug-ins. This doesn’t break the bank; we’re not talking about crazy mics. It’s about options. Then you can bleed them together, or set them off of each other by a few centimeters. You can send one through some tape echo and keep another one dry. Any space that I build is just options, to get it all and then figure it out later. I can’t tell you how many times the piano sound on a record has been from those two mics up there [pointing to Rode NT5s]. Or the guitar sounds; we had this one mic on guitar, but the CM7 in the corner got the cooler sound. The downside to that is that you can get locked into certain sounds, but that doesn’t happen too often.

You’ve spoken about a certain darkness and melancholy that seems to inform a lot of your solo songwriting, your cowriting, and your production. A big part of this comes from the passing of your sister [Sarah, who passed from brain cancer when Antonoff was a senior in high school]. Are there any other places within your life that inform this melancholy? 

I think we all have it. For a long time I would brush things under that rug and be like, “Oh, I’m sad and introspective because of this loss.” That’s bullshit. Everyone is having their own version of a hard time. This work that we do is a function of figuring that out. We’re not people who make something tangible or specific. [This process] is an emotional tool. Every side of it is about getting to the bone of something. Happiness is pretty uninspiring, historically – and specifically in music. What’s inspiring is taking the darkness and trying to sift through it. Happiness, or having a great old time – well, we all know what that feels like. If you pull up any playlist you have, even ones you don’t think are particularly dark, what’s way more interesting is sifting through the darkness where you can’t find your way and can’t make sense [of anything]. When I was younger and was going through grief and loss, I thought, “Oh, I’m out here on an island reporting about this thing that very few people can relate to.” The older I get, the more I realize it was always going to be that way. Everyone I know and relate to in this work seems to come from that space of just sifting through darkness. Even songs about feeling good are about darkness, because they are all about “when I didn’t feel good.” The best example of that is Christmas music. Every Christmas song ever is, “I hope my baby comes back on Christmas. I hope I’m not alone next Christmas. I hope I survive.” It’s always a twist. Even the happiest songs still have that tinge of “maybe it’ll go away.” It’s the fabric or thread that connects all of us, and that’s what we do. Music is meant to connect.

You’ve said in interviews that “if you live in the suburbs, you dream. If you live in New York City, you’re not dreaming, because you’re there.” Or, “Growing up in a place that is forced to be in the shadow of something is really special, because there’s so much energy in that.” What was it about growing up in the suburbs that has had such an influence on you and your music? 

Your lyrics, your chord changes, the notes you gravitate to, and the sound you gravitate towards – your whole sound – is based on where you’re reporting from. If you’re reporting from a town in the middle of nowhere, that’s a perspective. If you’re reporting from the center of New York City, Hollywood, or London, that’s a perspective. That changes things, and you hear it in the songs. My perspective, and the place I report from – I lived there my whole life, and it’s ingrained in me – is a specific place. It’s New Jersey; and what’s so specific about New Jersey is its proximity to one of, if not THE greatest city in the world – and the almost medieval cruelty, where there’s this thin body of water that separates [the two]. So, it’s not the same as being from “near the city.” It’s very specific, and it creates what I’ve come to know as “the New Jersey sound.” It’s staring into the window of the party. There are these feelings in New Jersey of, “We’ve gotta get out of here.” But there’s more to it than that, because you get these East Coast sorts of sounds. You feel that in some of the changes in the horns, [and] there’s such a melancholy to it. Then you go further up the coast, and it gets a little bit brighter and a bit more settled in. “We choose to live here. It’s wonderful. This is a great little town!” But that New Jersey thing – “in the shadow of the city” – it’s so devastating. It’s very emotional and it creates a deep melancholy, but also a hope. It’s literally who I am.

You’ve cited a nostalgia for John Hughes’ movies, what they stand for in your mind, and how they’ve affected your songwriting and production style. How has this pervading sense of ‘80s nostalgia informed your music?

The ‘80s were a complicated period. Most periods are. What speaks to me about the ‘80s was the willingness to accept dark feelings in some big songs. There was more rage in the ‘90s, which was when I grew up. The music in the ‘80s was so goddamn pouty. It’s such a relatable vibe. My biggest influence is more ‘70s, like [the band] Suicide – that’s sonically what touches me the most. But there are certain sounds – such as the low end on a [Roland] Juno 6 that is just heartbreaking to me. Some of the string sounds on a [Yamaha] DX7 are so bizarre and warped; they send me into an emotional tailspin. I feel like I had a bigger connection to it a decade ago than I do now. I’ve been really into mixing lately. I’ve been obsessed with putting acoustic 12-strings on top of the low end coming from a Juno synth. You grab sounds from different decades. I love the way snare drums were treated in the ‘70s. I love the way bells of all kinds were treated in the ‘60s. They were so reverbed, and the pitchy tail would carry on forever – like the [Phil] Spector recordings. I love the low end of the ‘80s [more] than that of modern times. It was more interesting. It’s become very commonplace [today] to make your low end follow very specific melodies. The low end in the ‘80s had weird stuff going on. I love the looseness of the ‘90s. I like ‘90s style guitars. I’m pulling from all these different places. There are certain sounds you hit. Put a certain reverb on the snare drum, or the higher registers on [Oberheim] OB-8s and Junos is unmistakably ‘80s. I don’t store patches, ever, and I won’t use soft synths, not even to mess around. If I know I can pull up the exact same sound [a second time], part of me dies. If I can pull it up, then anyone can pull it up! What I dislike about a lot of modern recordings is that the pitch is so goddamn perfect. I mess with Auto-Tune all the time, and I love plug-ins and messing around, but it’s got to start with something [unique]. I don’t want a soft synth and then plug-ins, because then I have a chain that, while unlikely, is technically recreate-able. Anyone who knows the Moog [Model D] – what’s the first thing you do after you tune it? You tilt the oscillators a little off. That’s what s