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Jack Antonoff on Star Wars, old right-wing men, and the JFK assassination

In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.

Best known as the frontman for pop rock act Bleachers, Jack Antonoff has had a long and storied career in music. Though he broke into the mainstream as the guitarist for Fun, Antonoff has been a member of a few other bands, including Drive-Thru Records act Steel Train. He has also written hit songs with several other acts, including “Brave” with Sara Bareilles, and wrote and produced three tracks from Taylor Swift’s latest record, 1989. He also recently launched his own celebrity-studded, documentary-style web series, Thank You And Sorry, on Google Play and has both curated and planned his own music festival, Shadow Of The City, taking place September 19 in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

1.What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

Jack Antonoff: The worst job I ever had was with my family and my friend Daniel’s family. We were like 9, and we’d always go fishing together in Florida, which is something people from New Jersey do. There was a local store at the resort called Taste Buds that sold ibuprofen and water and Daniel and I, we begged them to let us work there for free. So we stocked the store at 9 years old for the entirety of our vacation from nine to five and it wasn’t until, like, the last day that I realized I fucked up the whole vacation.

The A.V. Club: You probably thought pretending to be a grown-up seemed fun.

JA: Yeah, but I quickly realized it was horrible. I remember being really depressed and my parents were like, “Well, you wasted your vacation.” And I realized what I’d done.

AVC: The store didn’t give you anything? No free candy or pop?

JA: We got a gummy lizard at one point. They were very clear that we could help out, but they couldn’t pay us because of legal issues. I was going to say it was a learning experience, but it wasn’t. It was nothing.

2. When did you first feel successful?

JA: I’ve had so many different moments of feeling successful, but they all feel the same. It’s like no matter how huge it felt, it was the like the first time I got to play at the Teaneck Legion Hall, which was owned by and run by vets. I think Commander Bob was the name of the guy who rented it and you could go there for 300 bucks and rent the hall for a punk show. When I was 14, I was really obsessed with the punk scene in New Jersey, so I got a bunch of bands, I got the money together—I got two touring bands even, with a rider, my dad got a case of beer and my budget was like $600 and I put on a punk show and 90 people came and it was, like, the hugest success ever. The feeling I had that night is no different than playing the Grammys; it’s the exact same.

AVC: How so?

JA: It’s just the feeling of, “I did it. I did it, I did it, I did it.” I remember that feeling when I played the Knitting Factory and I was like, “I made it. I’m at the Knitting Factory!” Or the first time I did a tour, literally being in the van. I was like, “This is it. I could fucking get shot in the head tomorrow; I always wanted to tour and I’m on tour.” Or I got to play on Conan in 2007, which is the first time I had ever played on TV. “Holy shit, whatever happens from now on, I got to do this.” So I constantly have that feeling of, “I got to do this.”

AVC: That seems like a good feeling to have. There will always be new boundaries to cross.

JA: It never negates the old feeling, it’s just the same. It’s not like, “Oh, I thought that was great, but this is great.” It’s just the same thing. Thinking back to that punk show, it feels just as good as anything that would seemingly be a bigger accomplishment now.

3. If you were a supervillain, what would your master plan be?

JA: If I was a supervillain, I’d create this universal, cosmic rule where every time an old, shitty, right-wing white man says something unsavory about a young woman, he would just get the clap immediately.

AVC: That’s one of those supervillain plans where, to some people, you’d really be a superhero.

JA: I just like the idea of an old, shitty white guy who misses the way he thinks America should be getting the clap immediately. They’d all spread it all around to themselves until they all died.

AVC: Can you die from the clap?

JA: In this villain sequence, it’s a clap that slowly kills you because the pain of this clap is so bad that you actually kill yourself. That’s how it works.

4. What were you like as a kid?

JA: I was very shy and a total fucking asshole all at once. I would just do dumb shit. I remember one time I went on a beaver watch with my family on a boat. We had a guide and we went on a boat to go look at beavers and—this explains me as a child so much—the first thing I did was jump into the boat really hard and I broke the guide’s foot. He still did the tour and on the tour I was rocking the boat and we were in sweaters and it was cold. It was not during the summer, it was during this fucking beaver watch—I have no idea why we were doing this—but I was rocking the boat and my dad was like, “Stop fucking shaking the boat!” and I was like, “Yeah, shake the boat, shake the boat,” and I flipped the boat and flipped my dad and flipped my sister and myself over and we were soaking wet and everybody hated me. And I was like, “Ha, I’m an asshole,” but also really sad that everyone was disappointed in me. I really acted out that way. I didn’t do well in school and I just felt like a failure so I would act out and do that shit, but I was also super shy at the same time, so it was one or the other.

AVC: Did the guide know his foot was broke?

JS: Oh, he knew. It was a huge deal; my mom is a nurse and she was like, “Your foot is fucking broken.”

It was super weird. It was at this shitty, shitty, Dirty Dancing type lodge. It’s just something that Jews do.

AVC: Did you get in trouble?

JA: We didn’t have much shit so I wasn’t missing video games, I didn’t have a huge social life. The idea of my parents punishing us was super unclear, because what was I going to do? Carry on with my shitty fucking life; I didn’t get to do much anyway. It was a different time. I didn’t really care about TV, there was no internet; anything I did was a good thing. I played some sports, I skateboarded, that was a physical activity. I don’t remember being punished, but I also don’t know what they could have punished me with. I didn’t want for anything, I didn’t need money.

5. Who was your celebrity crush when you were younger?

JA: Gwen Stefani.

AVC: Have you met her since?

JA: Never met her.

AVC: Someday you probably will.

JA: You never know, you know? Maybe I will, maybe I won’t.

6. If you had entrance music, what would it be?

JA: The Brenda and Eddie part of Billy Joel’s “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” the middle part where it goes into the day in a life, faster part.

AVC: Why?

JA: It’s the song I feel most sounds like me. Sounds like me? I don’t know why I said that.

AVC: Do you think Bleachers sounds like that?

JA: No, not at all. I don’t mean artistically, I just mean I feel connected to it as a human being.

AVC: How?

JA: I just feel very connected to it. I hear it and I don’t mean it in an artistic way but, it just feels close to me. Like I said, it exists outside the realm of anything involving my art. It’s just a separate feeling.

7. What have you done so far today?

JA: I woke up and I forgot I had a bunch of interviews. So I was like, “I’m going to eat and I’m going to work out” and all that, then I was like, “Oh, no, I have to get on the phone right now,” so I got on the phone and did a couple of interviews and then I announced the festival, which I’ve been working on for a couple of years.

Whenever I announce something big—and this is the upside of the internet and Twitter and all that shit—you can see the reaction. It’s so fucking exciting, I’ve been waiting for this thing and I’ve worked so hard on everything from the bands to the stage and where it is to the scene behind it to even how much the fucking tickets are. And to just sit there and stare at your phone and have an emotional reaction to what you just did, it’s just special; it’s one of my favorite things to do.

AVC: It’s great when you can tell a project is so personal to an artist.

JA: What I didn’t want to get lost in it was that festival culture has gotten so fucking weird in America. I’m sure everyone has noticed it. We live in this funny time—and I won’t name anything specific—but we love to “hate attend” or “hate cover” festivals. I’m sure you’ve noticed this. But music festivals are fucking beautiful, brilliant, and incredible things and it’s just that some of them have jumped the shark a bit. I just wanted to do something that really came from the heart and that had to do with where I grew up and the music I believe in and the bands I love and something that wasn’t some overblown corporate thing where I’m the face of this giant, fucking corporate whatever.

The whole festival was conceived and programmed off of iPhone notes I made. It’s just a cool idea with bands I love and a place in New Jersey that I love and what it means to be from New Jersey. The name of the festival, “Shadow Of The City,” plays into growing up in the shadow of the greatest city in the world and the hope that that creates and the feeling that creates and the difference between the New York sound and the New Jersey sound. I feel very proud that people seem to understand, and that’s easier than it sounds because there’s so much crap out there that when something comes from the heart and you work on something, it means a lot to you when you put it out there and it shines through. It’s nice, because so often Twitter can be a place where you’re like, “Hey, check out this new song,” and someone’s like, “Kill yourself.” But I’ve noticed less and less of that the more I do things that are meaningful and when I’m clear about why I’m doing things.

AVC: And hopefully you’ll be able to bring some money and attention to people and places in New Jersey.

JA: All of those things are positive and it’s something I’m really proud of and it’s been my whole morning and most of my afternoon, just being excited and interacting with people and listening to what people have to say.

8. Have you ever been mistaken for another celebrity? If so, who?

JA: Rick Moranis. Or the guy from Boy Meets World.

AVC: Do people just say you look like him or are people calling out to you like they think you’re him?

JA: No, I’ve never been mistaken for Rick Moranis, people are just like, “You look like Rick Moranis” and I’m like, “Thanks!”

AVC: That’s not a bad person to look like.

JA: Here’s the thing: I agree. If you look at a picture of us next to each other, it’s completely uncanny, but no one is like, “Rick Moranis, oh God, he’s so hot!” It’s fine.

AVC: I’m sure some people think that.

JA: There’s someone out there for everyone.

9. If you had to find another line of work, what skills would you put on your resume.

JA: I don’t like to party, but I like to be around a party so I can imagine wanting to be someone who brings around the hors d’oeuvres, or a bartender. I like being around a lively atmosphere.

I’m also really good with collecting, so I think I could be a pretty decent researcher. I’m pretty good with math. But with collecting, if there was this new job opening where they needed someone to collect all the buttons in Piscataway or something, I’d be like, “That sounds like the one for me.”

10. Do you collect anything and, if so, what and why?

JA: I’ve had massive collections over the years. My first collection ever was baseball cards; I had an amazing baseball card collection, specifically of Frank Thomas cards. No one understands why I’m obsessed with collecting and not the thing. I never gave a shit about baseball, but loved collecting; I was obsessed with it, went nuts. Autographs, baseball cards, stamps, coins.

The craziest obsession I ever had was Star Wars toys and I really don’t care about the movies that much. I enjoy them, but it was about the collecting and the idea that there were certain pieces out there only made in a certain way. Especially with Star Wars toys, there are always these really interesting things; like there was a small run where someone had a different-colored light saber and all of these crazy, nuanced things about these rare pieces that become even more rare. Like the translucent Obi-Wan Kenobi that Kellogg’s made for a week in the ’90s, I have a couple of those. I’d go on these crazy hunts to find these things.

The closet in the room that I grew up in still exists in New Jersey and is full of this insane Star Wars shrine that’s a mixture of my collections. And the centerpiece is from my Bar Mitzvah, which was Star Wars themed, so it really kind of transports you immediately. But now I’ve gotten really obsessed with synthesizers, which I actually use and are part of my work so it’s a bit more of a relevant obsession.

It’s like certain feelings of OCD and wanting to have and control and protect things. I love having things and keeping them and hoarding them and arranging them and staring at them; I remember so many hours spent as a kid staring at my baseball cards and rearranging them, staring at my Star Wars collectables and it wasn’t just that they’d sit in the drawers, they’d be set up on display and I’d rearrange the display and decide, “Okay, today is the day I’m going to rearrange the display,” and I’d spend 18 hours doing it and show my parents. I’m big on collecting things.

11. What would your last meal be?

JA: My favorite steak house in the world is the Knickerbocker in New York City. It’s actually a very underrated steak house and some people don’t regard it as one of the greats, but I think it makes fucking Peter Lugers’ Steakhouse seem like Five Guys. I think it’s outstanding. So I’d just like to have the steak for one from there. And then they could kill me.

AVC: Any sides?

JA: Yeah, creamed spinach and mashed potatoes. A salad to start; just the whole meal.

AVC: Any dessert or drinks?

JA: I don’t like dessert after I eat meat. And I guess for a drink, I’d have a hot mint tea.

Bonus 12th question from Al Jean: What will be the major difference in 2016 from this year?

JA: I think people have been obsessed in 2015 with this rapid-fire media thing that’s been happening and I think that’s going to chill out. I think this idea of “faster, faster, more, more, now, now,” that’s got to burn out and people will settle into slowly taking things in and enjoying them at a slower pace over time. I remember there was a time like that in ’94.

AVC: The New York Times ran an interesting article to that effect recently, basically saying we can’t keep working 70 hour weeks.

JA: It has got to chill out, it has got to revert. And it has nothing to do with technology. Reaction to it is technology based because everything kind of blasts out so quickly, but it’s a good thing because it has to revert a little closer to the arc. We’ve reached this age where everyone loves news and information so quickly that they’re building news off of non-newsworthy things. So a music website covers something Rihanna tweeted as much as her new single. You know? That can’t sustain and I think it comes from this place where we’re “more, more, more, more” and everything needs to be faster. I just hear people all time with no patience like, “Release it, release it, release it” and it’s not good for art and it has to turn around. People have to get sick of it. People are already sick of it. So I’m looking forward to that because I think we’ve hit the threshold.

AVC: What do you want to ask the next person?

JA: What’s your personal theory on the JFK assassination?

AVC: What’s yours?

JA: I agree with all the mob stuff, but regardless of what happened, I’m insanely fascinated with it. That doesn’t particularly answer my question, but I’m just insanely fascinated with it because it’s the first documented time where the government lied to the American people. At least that I can think of. Obviously, the government has lied many times in history, but this was one where there was a video, they said something happened, and it seemed like something different happened in the video. It’s very reminiscent of when I was growing up, then 9/11 and the war after that. It was just too crazy to imagine and everyone said it was. So I think a little bit more about the aftermath, but my theory is that it was mob related.