07 Symbiotic Siblings

Family plays a strong supportive role in designer Rachel Antonoff’s career. Here, Jonah Bayer speaks with her brother Jack about his own success with fun. and Bleachers, and the unique creative dynamic he shares with Rachel.

When it comes to creative endeavors, Rachel Antonoff’s brother Jack is no slouch, either. He cut his teeth playing in the jam-friendly group Steel Train, but didn’t get his big break until 2012, when his band fun.’s second album, Some Nights, blew up, selling over 1.6 million copies and earning the trio Grammy awards for Best New Artist and Song Of The Year, for the ubiquitous anthem “We Are Young.” Jack has always worked closely with his sister, and the siblings have helped each other achieve success in their respective fields, with Jack working on the videos for his sister’s fashion label, and Rachel providing vocals on his songs and appearing in his bands’ videos.

The Fire Theft Project caught up with Jack during a rare moment of downtime to discuss his solo project Bleachers (he’s also co-written hits with Taylor Swift and Lorde, among others), as well as his creative exchange with Rachel. Both Antonoffs have clearly put a lot of work into their careers, but they’ve also had a solid family support system, which has undoubtedly helped them push through uncertain periods and realize their dreams.

What was the catalyst that set Bleachers in motion, and how is it different from fun. or any other past music project?
It was really different because I was going it alone and I’ve never done that before. I always had bandmates to make me feel like I was in some club, like us against the world, you know? When you’re out there on your own, it’s the difference between going to a party with your friends and going to a party alone. You go to a party alone and you want to meet someone, you want to talk to someone, you want to find someone interesting, you want to feel understood. You don’t want to have a hot red face and be wishing you were leaving the whole time. You want to feel comfortable on your own. There’s just something humbling about it.

I’m sure that was scary at first. Has it gotten easier?
No, it hasn’t. [Laughs.] But Bleachers is really the best of both worlds because I have that feeling, but when I tour, I have a band, so there’s the toughness of me and my friends. But just in terms of the actual records that people hear, I feel pretty humble about that.

Bleachers is obviously a personal project for you. Why did you decide to use a band name instead of calling it “Jack Antonoff”?
Because I think that there’s something about using your name that felt a little too, “Here I come. Here’s my solo project.” I didn’t want it to feel reactionary, I didn’t want anyone to think like, “He’s in this band and that band, but this is his solo project.” The name just popped into my head; I named a folder “bleachers” one day for a song I was working on and I was like, “Whoa, that feels like what this is. That feels connected to all of this.” So I called it that and it didn’t matter what the folder was named, it mattered what was in it, just like it doesn’t matter what I call this thing as long as it’s connected. It matters what it sounds like and the name therefore has meaning. If I called it my name, then there’s all this weight and I didn’t want to saddle people with that baggage. I see stuff online every day where people are like, “Oh, I didn’t know that was you.” It leaves space and in a way frees people to just hear the music without having too much going into it, which is what I hope for when I put music out.

There is that implication, where if it’s your name, it means it’s a pure expression of your identity.
Yeah, which, if you ask me, I actually think it is. [Laughs.] But I don’t need to push that on people, and it’s like a new beginning. It’s nice. I mean, god, the music has so much baggage I may as well start with a new beginning somewhere. It’s all about the past 20 years of my life story, so maybe it felt like overkill to call it my name.

Family is obviously a big influence on you. You’re very close with Rachel and your parents. How do you think that comes to life in your work?
It comes to life in my work because I have these people that know me as well as anyone can know anyone, so I can’t really bullshit much, you know? I can’t really build a character or do something that isn’t fully honest because I have this fucking peanut gallery that’s behind me at the shows and in the studio going “we know you.”  So I think that, besides all the wonderful love and support that comes from family, it keeps me really honest and on point.

What creative projects would you like to take on with Rachel ideally if you had time?
One day it would be nice to make a film about our lives growing up, and the kind of people our parents are, and loss and how bizarre it all is.

Is that something you’ve talked about in the past?
We talk about it all the time, because it’s just always on our minds. It definitely feels like something that would be really interesting.

How would you say Rachel has influenced your work?
She has an idea and then she’ll just go and do it, and she won’t put it through any weird filter of what people are going to think. So I think she inspires me to have an idea and then just actually try to get it done and not get bogged down by trying to tailor it to anything but what the original dream was. That might sound really obvious, but it’s really hard to create something that’s just like how you saw it in your head, and she’s always doing that. She’ll tell me an idea she has and then a few days later it’ll exist. Or she’ll send me a picture of a shirt with giant ovaries on it and I’ll be like, “Oh, I remember when that was just an idea and now here it is.” So the ability to just materialize your idea, she’s amazing at that.

Is your natural tendency not to do that?
I don’t know. I just know that it’s inspiring and that the goal is to always have the thing you do as close to the idea you originally had for it.

Would you say your creative style is different, similar or complementary to hers?
I think it’s similar; I definitely think it’s complementary. Any time that we’re talking about ideas or working on something, it’s only better when she’s involved and it’s only more exciting and more creative.

How would you say your collaborations with Rachel are different from the work you do on your own?
I think probably from growing up together, we can talk a mile a minute, fly ideas off each other and have that exist in reality, not just your head, where you’re second-guessing things. When we talk about ideas, there’s a beat to it and it just moves.

What’s the best creative lesson you’ve learned from your sister and how have you manifested that in your own work?
I think she’s really connected to those random ideas you have when you’re just walking around or eating or standing in the shower or whatever you’re doing. Sometimes that’s the most exciting thing. It doesn’t have to happen in this concentrated space.

Conversation edited for length and clarity.