Jack Antonoff’s narrative is often a familiar read in most large-scale publications: “Who is Jack Antonoff, the hit-maker behind pop greats like Taylor Swift and Lorde?” or “You may not know him, but you know his music.” It reads as someone who has only just recently emerged from the shadows and into the light of the mainstream. In reality, Antonoff has been flourishing in the ‘shadows’ of New Jersey since the early 2000s – a fact most musically tuned-in natives know.
From his early days in Jersey-based bands — like the punk-laced Outline and indie rocking in Steel Train, to his known exploits as lead guitarist in Fun. and current frontman of Bleachers, to his previously stated work co-writing and producing with pop’s heavy weights — Antonoff’s roots remain and continue to blossom here. It’s why, for the fourth year, Antonoff is bringing Shadow of the City festival to Asbury Park; to shine a light on the literal and proverbial shadow New Jersey and its community reside in, and to prove its culture in the shadows continues to cultivate some of music’s best and brightest.
Shadow of the City has a pretty stacked lineup this year, including a couple of other Jersey natives. What went into crafting this year’s lineup?
It’s our fourth year doing it and every year I learn more and more about what I want it to be and how it can become more itself. So last year we made it a rule that half of the lineup had to be Jersey-based. That is something I plan on doing forever.
There are basically three things that matter to me: is it someone — an artist or a band — that I personally love? I would never, even if it was someone that other people love, I would never put an artist or band on the lineup that I didn’t personally love. Because at the end of the day the goal of this thing isn’t to sell a lot of tickets and be a music business festival; the goal of this thing is to throw a big block party, and I never want to get sidetracked.
The first thing I always think to myself is who do I love? Then, the next question I ask is: even if I love it, are they great live? Because one thing that bums me out about, you know, other festivals and things like that, is that there will be artists that I love, but aren’t really ready live yet. So I only want to have things at this show that are really fantastic live. The other part of it is making sure that half of it is New Jersey. Beyond that I really don’t care about anything else…I don’t care about a genre, I don’t care about anything besides whatever is going to make the most inspiring and exciting day for everyone.
That’s the point of Shadow of the City. I’m getting to a point in my life where I can do something like this, so what would I do if I was who I was when I dreamed about doing things like this when I was a kid. The whole point was about heart and bringing people to where I come from.
Absolutely! And Stone Pony is obviously such an iconic place in New Jersey, so to be doing that…wow. I know you have spoken a lot about how it was your dream growing up to even play there. Now that you have a couple times, do you still feel that magic and significance when you are performing there?
Without a doubt. I feel it in New Jersey in general. I feel it at the Stone Pony. Not anywhere else in the world has as strong a sound as New Jersey, so for all of us who lived there or lived near it or got to experience it, it’s a pretty special thing. Then, even if you have a place that has a really iconic sound to it, it is even more rare that you would have a venue equally as iconic that is the home for that sound. It’s amazing. It’s historic. For some people it would even be like a church, and I think that is a tradition that doesn’t die.
It’s the reason it’s called Shadow of the City, and the reason why I personally believe that the tradition exists, is because New Jersey itself is a geographically strange place in which it’s within eyeshot of all these massive cities — whether it be Philly or New York City. Most people in New Jersey seem to live right along that line where New York City is right there. That’s where the most dense population is and I think that’s what that sound comes from; being on the outside, feeling like you have to get out and do something, feeling this kind of underground, underdog hope. In many ways it’s the opposite of the sound of the bigger cities, but that also has a hometown and a venue that has its hold on the sound, as it has been for way longer than I have been alive. It’s amazing.
You’re also going to be having volunteers from your nonprofit, The Ally Coalition, and a portion of the ticket proceeds are being donated to them. It may seem slightly obvious, but can you say a little bit as to why it’s important to you to have them there? Especially in today’s sociopolitical climate?
Well, I would have them there no matter what. It makes it that much more important considering all that is going on in the world, but this goes way beyond Shadow of the City. I grew up in New Jersey, going to shows at the Wayne Firehouse and Boonton Elks Lodge and Dover and all over the place. It was always just the fact that, not politics, but social awareness was a part of music culture.
When you would go to a show, every show would be $5 to get in with a can of food. Food would go to an organization called Food Not Bombs or something like that. You would get to the show and there would be information about all New Jersey bands like Lifetime, or Bigwig, or Humble Beginnings, or whoever it was, but right there next to the merch would be a table about what was going on in Somalia or the poor communities in New Jersey that needed help. There was always something. The music I grew up on, and underground music and punk music in general, always had a deep connection with what was going on socially. I think that it’s absurd to put a lot of people in a room and not try to do some good, because it’s so easy. It’s like the easiest thing in the world. So if you are someone — like myself — who travels around and puts a lot of people in spaces, it’s not about yelling in their face about what I think, it’s about just doing some ‘no questions asked’ good.
No matter where you stand on anything, I would be shocked if you had a problem with a portion of your ticket sales going to homeless LGBT youth who were kicked out of their homes. The organization that I do is specific to that, and we’ll have tables at our shows and have information and donations come from every ticket, and things at Shadow of the City like a dunk tank and we’re doing a Mario Kart tournament. It’s also kind of New Jersey, too, because it comes from that kind of tradition of going to shows in New Jersey and realizing at an earlier age, if we’re going to gather, we can also share some good ideas and raise some money.
Absolutely, and like you said, it kind of lends itself to New Jersey sort of underdog light.
It’s not like there isn’t awareness outside of the state, but New Jersey definitely feels it on another level.
It’s definitely more than your average.
Now, awareness of even Shadow of the City has spread though, because people from outside of New Jersey are attending.
Yeah! I mean we have already had people from all over the world, like New Zealand and Australia and Europe and people who just come from everywhere. It’s interesting because it has become not only what it is, but it also has become like a meetup for all of the people who are involved in the work I make and my world. That’s a beautiful thing. It’s not exclusive for people in New Jersey. It’s about bringing something to New Jersey that maybe didn’t exist when I was a kid. You know? So if people from all over the world might want to come to that, that is a wonderful, wonderful thing.
It’s typically why people go to New York City, people go to Philadelphia. People don’t often go to New Jersey because it’s sandwiched between these places. I’ve made this a point before, but it’s almost literal. I didn’t realize as a kid, I always said, “Why is everyone playing in New York City and not New Jersey?” … But I think it’s a wonderful thing and I am not trying to do anything but show the people who care about me the culture that I come from and why my music sounds the way it does.
I’m a part of something that goes so much deeper than myself. I’m just a piece of it. I was born in 1984 and when I was growing up in New Jersey, bands like Lifetime were happening and the punk scene was happening and even in those worlds we knew about bands like Southside Johnny and Springsteen, who are sort of the heritage of this boardwalk sound or whatever you want to call it. We knew all the classic venues and we knew what it meant, and the number one goal of this thing is to just show people — whether they are from Australia or Columbus, Ohio or Red Bank, NJ — what this thing is that is a big part of me.
For sure! That brings me to the idea of this boardwalk sound and your work musically, both writing and producing. You’ve worked with Taylor Swift, Lorde, St. Vincent, and they all happen to be good friends of yours. How do you determine who you end up working with musically? Do you feel like your personal friendship plays a big role in that?
A combination of things. It is not a light thing when you work with someone else. It’s tense. Making records and writing songs and spending that kind of time with yourself or anyone else is very heavy. It’s a massive combination of knowing someone personally, seeing eye-to-eye on things, or at least enough to move forward. It’s a really intense space. It’s like any big decision you make in life; you kind of just look for the signs that you will be able to survive it and do what is best.
I think that about myself, too. I feel that way when I go into the studio by myself. It’s kind of a big leap of faith anytime you walk into a studio or a room to write a song.
There are people in the music business though who do view it as just a business, unfortunately, so I do think it’s kind of special when two people who are equally as invested in making it more than just a business work together. Even, like you said with Shadow of the City, it’s not meant to be this big, corporate run festival.
I mean, I think I used to be more angry about that kind of stuff when I saw us all as one group. There are many different areas of this and just because, you know, you get on stage or you write songs or you do this and someone else does the same thing…it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have that much in common. It’s sort of like how you could spend a whole day preparing and cooking something and put all this care into it, or you could just go to McDonald’s and buy a Big Mac [Laughs], and you are basically doing the same action when you’re eating, but it’s a very different thing. I don’t know. I think there are many more angles to make things work, and I think it’s important to find that one that makes you proud.
Definitely. Your last album dropped just over a year ago, but is there the possibility of new music in the works? I know you’ve been spotted recently in studios with the Dixie Chicks, and even Lana Del Rey… I don’t know how much you can or are willing to tell, but can fans expect some new Bleachers within the next year?
I’m working on Bleachers stuff and I don’t know… It’s funny, because there is something so intentional and so loose about it at the same time. You just work from where you are, you know, because the most important thing about making records is to capture where you are emotionally and at any given moment. You let it all happen and then when you leave that specific space, you can look at it and say, “Ok, do I have anything here that is real?” Because the world doesn’t need to hear my rambling, but I need to see if there is anything here that is more than just rambling.
I will say that for the first time in a while, recently, when I have been looking at the stuff I’m starting to see it and say “Oh, ok. There’s something here that might be a part of the next chapter.”
That’s exciting! And before I let you run, is there anything else that you would like to say to fans coming out to this year’s Shadow of the City?
I’ll say this: I don’t look at social media too much, but when I do — and now that we are two weeks out from the show — so all the stuff that I look at is about that. All of these people have been writing to me about what they want on the setlist, and I actually have a little document on my phone, which I actually just wrote something in during this call because I got an idea about putting something in the setlist about what it’s going to be. Anyway, so what I want people to know is to please help me put this thing together, because it’s for all of us.
The community is definitely what Shadow of the City is about, so I’m sure fans are more than happy to share their piece in terms of setlist and anything else. Like you said about social media, people are really excited to head out. Hopefully we can keep this weather on track!
Even if it’s not, then it’ll just be a part of it!
Catch Bleachers headlining Shadow of the City at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park on Saturday, August 25.