Sitting in a swish King’s Cross hotel suite are me, Jack Antonoff and an elephant. The pachyderm in the room is Lena Dunham – media darling, Girls creator and star, widely anointed voice of a generation and Antonoff’s partner. They’ve lived together in Brooklyn Heights since 2012. At what stage in a conversation can you bring up someone’s vastly more famous other half without looking like you’ve only come to talk about her?
As it happens, I’d want to meet Antonoff anyway. The 31-year-old New Jersey guitarist with the Rick Moranis style is no household name, sure, but he’s a rocket in the music world. In recent years he’s gone multi-platinum with the pop-rock band Fun, particularly their inescapable anthem We Are Young, which sold 7 million copies in the US alone and won Song of the Year at the 2013 Grammys. He co-wrote three songs on Taylor Swift’s 1989, the biggest-selling album of the past year worldwide. “Taylor is great. You can’t fake it in music,” he says. “It’s very obvious who sucks and who doesn’t, and she is exactly how she seems: totally brilliant.”
Meanwhile his debut album with his new band, Bleachers, became a hit in the US a year ago and is finally about to be released here. It’s glorious fun, a glossy, Eighties-sounding riot that you could play over a John Hughes movie or the volleyball scene in Top Gun. Yet it’s more eccentric than a straight pop album. Yoko Ono is on it, as is hip electronica act Grimes and synthpop pioneer Vince Clarke.
Bleachers’ big single is I Wanna Get Better, a twitchy, piano-pounding monster that pulls off the trick of being both heart-swellingly euphoric and also sad and unsettling. It grapples with Antonoff’s feelings as an 18-year-old, a period during which his sister died of brain cancer at 13, the 9/11 attacks happened and his soldier cousin was killed in Iraq. He was going for the feel of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA: a fist-pumping anthem on the surface, a tragic tale if you listen more closely. “That’s my favourite kind of music. You could put it on in a bar or you could cry to it in bed,” he tells me. “It’s bombastic, it’s got this Eighties influence and it sounds like it exists in a massive movie, but then the lyrics are extremely dark and upsetting. That’s the spirit of the album.”
Dunham directed the video, in which Antonoff plays a downtrodden therapist listening to an array of troubled clients, so at least we can talk about her in a work context. “We kind of had the idea together and she’s such a great director. Any time we can be creative together is always fun – any time I can do music for her or she directs for me. I know some people don’t like it, but for me it’s always been a positive thing. Any time you can work with people you love is just nice.”
She also directed some between-song clips for Bleachers’ current joint tour with Charli XCX, but has not been majorly involved in a new faux-documentary series Antonoff has made, Thank You and Sorry. It’s a six-parter newly available in the Google Play store, a black-and-white kind-of-comedy in which Antonoff plays a more awful version of himself in the manner of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm or Louis CK in Louie. The line between fiction and reality is fuzzy. He is seen talking to his girlfriend on the phone a lot, but when she finally appears, it’s 50-year-old actress Rosie Perez.
The show hadn’t been announced when we met, but he has since said of Dunham’s absence: “Because it’s like, in her world, I wanted to see if I could make it work without her expert opinion.” He only really seems to feel comfortable talking about her in art terms. He does the red carpet stuff “if I have to”. Otherwise it gets a little awkward. “My art is public, that’s for everybody, so I’m happy to talk about it because I want people to hear it. I understand why I’m doing it. But I would never promote my relationship. That’s totally private, I’m not trying to sell anything. I want people to come to the shows; I don’t want anybody to come and watch us in bed. But that’s just the culture we live in.” At least I don’t ask him about his high school sweetheart, Scarlett Johansson, until the end of the interview. That earns me a quick confirmation that it’s true, a “Nice to meet you,” and I’m suddenly alone in the room.
Even Dunham, famed for the lengths to which she goes to expose herself in her show (not just the nudity, but also giving her character Hannah OCD, which she has suffered from in real life) has been a surprisingly closed book about him. In her bestseller, Not That Kind of Girl, all he gets is a brief passage explaining why she tried to write about him, but decided not to: “But surveying those words I realized they are mine. He is mine to protect.”
Yet both are making art that gets extremely close to the truth about themselves, and are far from closed in other regards. “I have an easier time telling a million people on a record how I feel than telling the people closest to me sometimes,” Antonoff says. He is happy to talk about his experience of therapy, which he highly recommends, and describes how he goes about his day despite suffering from an anxiety disorder. “It’s not anxiety like stage fright or about doing a good job. It’s strictly about mortality and health and my own existence. So whether I’m singing in a band or just sitting on my couch, I struggle either way. Actually sometimes touring helps – there’s a nice routine to it.”
He’s glad he has these issues in the internet age, at least. “One positive thing about modern times is that with mental illnesses there is more conversation,” he says. “The first time you have a panic atack you think you’re the first person to feel that in the world, and then you realise that everyone has them. In the Fifties if you had mental problems they’d just stick you in a room. Now you can go online and see all these other people with the same fears. How comforting is it when you google something like ‘Can black mould kill me?’ and you realise a billion other people have already typed it in?”
It must be hard though, to have strangers like me meeting him for the first time and already knowing about the deaths in his family and the way that he needs to put his jacket over his hand to touch a doorknob. “No, it’s okay, because I put it out there. What is someone going to say about me? Are they going to say I have an axiety disorder? Well I already told you that. Are they going to say that I froze in time when certain people in my family died? Well I already told you that too. It makes me feel powerful.”
What’s less clear is the future of the band Fun. Their singer Nate Ruess also put out an excellent solo album this month. Antonoff stresses that Bleachers is no side-project, with the implications of half-hearted mucking about that the term implies. It’s too good for that. “Fun is just on hold. There was all this theoretical money on the table that we could have gone and grabbed,” he says of industry demands for more hits from the trio. “It’s comforting to know that we’ve always followed the music and not made it about business. The last thing the world needs is an album from anyone that’s not ready to make an album.”
He really believes in this music. “Fun is something that I’m a part of. Bleachers is something that’s part of me.” So if you want to know even more about this awkward man with an anxious mind and a pop heart, his fantastic songs are a great place to start.
Strange Desire is out on July 6 on Columbia.
Calling festival, July 4, Clapham Common, SW4 (callingfestival.co.uk)