Producer and Bleachers frontman Jack Antonoff honored Tom Petty during a stripped-down performance and Q&A Monday night at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles. He also addressed the heaviness of the day’s news surrounding both the hospitalized rock icon and the mass shooting in Las Vegas, hoping to bring some light to a very dark day.
Antonoff has had a busy year, between producing Lorde’s latest album, “Melodrama”; releasing his band Bleachers’ second album, “Gone Now”; and working with Taylor Swift on her recent single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” Interviewed by the Grammy Museum’s executive director, Scott Goldman, at the museum’s 200-seat Clive Davis Theater, Antonoff — who has also worked with Sia, Carly Rae Jepsen, Sara Bareilles, Pink, and St. Vincent — balanced vulnerable conversation with a sense of humor akin to his partner, Lena Dunham of “Girls,” throughout the evening. Clad in an ’80s style denim jacket that matched the retro pop leanings of his own music, the New Jersey native discussed everything from how deeply he relates to Bruce Springsteen (“the first time I heard Springsteen, I thought, ‘oh, that’s actually my life'”) to a supposed dichotomy in perspective of the artist as Bleachers songwriter versus hit-making producer.
“Certain folks have said that the Bleachers stuff that you do is the best thing possible, and all that other pop songwriting is not your best work. Then there’s another group of people saying that the Bleachers stuff is strictly a vanity thing,” Goldman said. “Are you surprised that people take sides about this?”
“No, not at all. I think I’m treated very fairly,” Antonoff responded. “That sounded like Trump.” The audience laughed as he went on to mock Trump with an on-point impression: “Everybody knows both bodies of work are brilliant,” he joked.
“To answer your question, I don’t mind that debate… it’s fair for people to try to understand it. The only thing I see about myself that I think is funny is this narrative that I’m a ‘workaholic’ or something. I don’t think that’s very true.” For the most part, he only cares about what his fans think, he said, and they typically do not seem to choose a side.
Referring to the recent massacre at a music festival in Las Vegas, Antonoff said, “Gathering in a room of people to watch a band or artist play is still some act of rebellion. I think people go to shows because they don’t feel understood. It is a safe space. People go to get away from the things that torture them.”
Antonoff then explained why he prefers a personalized songwriting process. “This thing happens a lot, specifically in L.A., where a lot of people will get in a room. Labels think that one plus one plus one… is going to be the sum of that. It’s like an orgy. What are the odds, unless you are some weird master of that genre, that adding more people would be better? It would probably get more complicated. Maybe someone would have a disease,” he said as the crowd laughed. “Maybe someone would be rude or someone couldn’t get it up. Songwriting is just like that. When you’re just with someone else, you want to stay with them.”
“I’m just not good at that,” he continued. “Some people are. Some people have had incredible group sex. Don’t take this in any way as a knock towards that. I realized that if I’m with one person, I can access something way better than I can with a group of people.” He said that a lot of songs he produces and co-writes come from vulnerable one-on-one talks with artists.
His connection to his fans was potent as he interacted with them throughout the event, from checking on a coughing person in the crowd to calling on a long-time fan, Victor, by name and asking about how he’s been during the audience Q&A. The superfan asked Antonoff about self care, to which the artist responded by emphasizing the importance of therapy as well as treating yourself with compassion. It took “33 years and counting” for Antonoff to not feel shame about the state of his mental health. “If you hurt your knee, people would be like, ‘come sit over here where people who are hurt can sit.’ But when you can’t see it, there’s so much shame. Speak to yourself like you’d speak to another person who you like.” During the Q&A, he also mentioned that he has been “writing a lot on tour.”
Accompanied by Bleachers touring multi-instrumentalist Evan Smith, Antonoff performed an acoustic set beginning with a Tom Petty medley. He noted that the band had been covering Petty on tour even before his death, but on this day, it was especially meaningful to honor the classic rock legend.
Antonoff continued to strum and sing Bleachers songs including “Don’t Take the Money” and “I Wanna Get Better” with the help of Smith, who alternated between the keyboard and saxophone. The two musicians shared stories and asked for requests from the crowd throughout the show, choosing songs to perform along the way. “Setlists and plans are for people who aren’t grieving the world,” Antonoff said.