in the hyper-early stages of grief. Last thing anyone like that should do is hallucinogenics — and this isn’t like 2021 mushrooms. This is something a friend had, and we just put them all in a pot and ate them all and drank tea. We probably took so much. It was horrible. I literally went to the doctor and told them what happened. I was like, “I don’t think I’m gonna come back.”
What did the doctor say?
He was like, “Well, it can trigger schizophrenia.” It really, really scared me. It can make me cry to think about it. I had so many hopes and my family had this big loss, and I almost fucked my life up. So now it’s become like a touchstone for writing — like, the most out of control I’ve ever been. I didn’t leave the house for a couple months. I got in a really bad way. It gives me horrible feelings, even discussing it. So I don’t do a lot with anything psychoactive.
It seems like as you went through all these musical phases, when Steel Train ended, when you quit fun., you never lost confidence that you would make music for a living.
You accept different things at different ages. When you’re 18 and your friends are going off to college and you’ve scored some small record deal, you’re a king. When you’re 21 and your friends are planning their lives and you’re smoking pot in a van, you’re a loser. When you’re 25 and your friends are going, “I feel a little stuck,” and you’re smoking pot in a van, all of a sudden you’re kind of cool again. I wasn’t able to support myself, move out, envision a life where I could do music and not live in my parents’ house. And it was that way until I was 27. I was on this blind-faith path. I call it a delusion, which I think is part of being an artist. My reality was, if I live in my parents’ house and am considered wildly unsuccessful in my circles, then that’s the deal.
When you were in Steel Train, you wrote “Better Love,” which calls out your high school ex Scarlett Johansson by her first name. She was already famous, so everyone knew who it was. That seems hilariously uncharacteristic. What was that about?
I think it was a really naive moment where I didn’t understand. I don’t know. Maybe some part of me wanted to just put the whole thing on blast. I can’t really access the part of me that was willing to just chuck a name in there.
Maybe you wanted the attention?
Maybe? Maybe I was disassociating. I mean, I was 19. It was a surreal time. I wrote songs on that album that were so hyperspecific, even about death, that they are uncomfortable to listen to. It was not an inviting body of work.
Someone made a PowerPoint about something they theorized happened in your personal life [it was alleged that Antonoff had an affair with Lorde]. It went viral. Is it weird to have people think they know something like that about you?
I don’t think people who listen to my music think they know that. There’s a whole other audience, people that have some pretty hot takes, but they might not actually be your audience. I could do a really tight five minutes on why [the affair theory] is absurd. But then I just sort of, like, go back to work.
When she had you onstage at Barclays Center, some writers online got worked up about the whole thing again.
We played a song together! Ella and I have a brilliant friendship and creative relationship. It’s like,
“I read on a wall smeared in shit that you are not a nice guy. Care to comment?” “I went to the bottom of the ocean. And there was a colony of people there who are all eating each other. They’re like half-fish, half-human. And they said that you eat out of the dumpster. Care to comment?” [ Laughs.]
Fair enough. To get back to the musical relationship, Lorde’s Melodrama was the first time you did a whole album with an artist. What did you take away from that experience?
It was the first time I did an album with someone where I was in . . . where it was mine. And it’s what I’m best at. There’s a whole recent history of people allowing me to be my best self. Whether it’s Taylor or Ella, it’s a type of person who took a leap of faith, because there wasn’t a proven track record.
We were finding ourselves together on Melodrama. She was in a remarkably fascinating place. The second album is a monster, and the second album is a mountain. And she had all these added pressures of what had happened in the first album, but had a very clear vision of what she wanted. I was finding myself as a producer, and I felt like we brought out the best in each other. I think my life would have been remarkably different without that.
You spent forever on “Liability,” I’ve heard.
Yeah, we did. To make the decision that a song is going to be a vocal and a piano, the vocal and the piano have to be perfect. And when I say perfect, I mean, whatever it takes to evoke a specific feeling. Are the vocals super dry and in your face? Is there a slight knowing reverb to it, where the reverb represents the loneliness? If you use a grand piano, the shit’s gonna start to sound too self-serious. If you record it too low-fi, it’s gonna sound like you’re apologizing for what a beautiful song and sentiment it is. It’s a really interesting balancing act.
What about “Green Light”?
Another one with a really interesting balance, where the song asks a lot of you. “OK, so you want me to come close and hear the story. But then you also want me to, like, do a backflip and dance my face off?” It’s a really cool journey. It doesn’t make anything better or worse. There are certain things you know what to do with, and it’s a lot to do. It has nothing to do with how many tracks are on it. It’s got to do with what the song is asking you.
Were you surprised how huge Folklore was?
I was surprised at the level of it. I thought it was beautiful. I loved the work she was doing with Aaron [Dessner], I loved the work she and I were doing. I thought it would speak to her people. I didn’t know it would become what it did. It was just her sort of like pulling it back, like, “Let’s try some shit.”
And that’s the algorithm I focus on, the one in my head where it’s like, “If you make things you really love, you find your people for it.” That’s my experience of Bleachers. I’m not trying to get everyone on Earth. Are there 10,000 in every city, or is there a million in every city? I don’t know. That’s this whole thing, at its highest: Find your people. Otherwise you could be really, really big and no one could give a fuck. Remember how big fun. was? You’re not asking me about that. At the end of the day, it came and went because the conversation wasn’t long enough to build into something that stayed with you.
Reputation was the first time you wrote with Taylor in the same room; before, you’d sent her tracks. What did you take away from that?
I was like, “Oh, shit, we can do this too.” My creative relationship with her feels kind of boundless. I don’t work with, like, a large list of people. So these are
pretty special creative relationships. And that’s obviously a big one.
Reputation is great; it’s a really underrated album, or at least it was initially.
Once again, the difference between people who are the audience and people who are driving by and have a comment. So much was going on culturally that it was easy to have a comment here or there. But I love it. I went back to it recently and loved it.
What have you learned from working with Lana Del Rey? She seems like a very different artist than some of your other collaborators.
Very different. It’s a tough one to answer because I see her and my work as just, like, in a different zone or something. I don’t even remember sometimes how a lot of those things happen because everyone has a different process of getting somewhere. And when we’re together, I feel like we just, like, fuck around, just play some stuff. But I did learn not to do anything with her that I’m not prepared to put out before we leave the studio. Because if she’s feeling it, that door’s gonna close. She’s very vibe-driven.
How did “Venice Bitch,” which is almost 10 minutes long, happen?
There was a more beat-driven three-minute version. My process with her is not super precious. It isn’t, until it is. I remember her being like, “What if you just go play drums on it?” I was like, “OK, well, I’ll play, and what if there’s a long outro?” The way I play drums is very much as a fan of music. I spend a lot of time in headphones playing along to records. So I was playing and having a really good time. And I was like, “This part’s quiet, this part’s loud, this part’s crazy, this part’s kind of like acid-y.” Lana’s fun because she’ll call a sound “beautiful,” or “disgusting.”
You’ve been asked many times why you gravitate toward working with women. Have you come up with any additional insights?
It’s never come up in my head outside of being interviewed.
The most reductive, possibly idiotic answer is here’s someone who’s lost a sister, seeking to...
I wouldn’t call it idiotic. I would call that, like, entrylevel analysis. I don’t have answers for a lot of these things. There’s a lot of wonder there, and, I think, that’s something that is good for the process.
Like everyone else, you’re not without ego...
[ Laughs.] Thank you, Brian.
But what I was going to ask is how you put your performer’s ego aside to become such an able collaborator, to accept that it’s not about you.
If you’re doing songwriting right, it’s hard to imagine feeling like it’s about you. I think it’s a common misconception. It’s come from years of artists who are so exhausted by not knowing when the next song is coming that they replaced it with ego. None of us are in control. To be a songwriter is to wake up every morning and pray that you’re hit with it. Sometimes you’re feeling it and you just can’t fucking get it. It’s maddening. And then sometimes you get it, and you’re working on it forever, forever and forever. It’s like this crazy puzzle that you can’t put together and you work on it for a year. And then one day, you’re having lunch with a friend, and you get an idea in a split second that’s better than that whole year’s work.
But the way I feel making my work and making other people’s work is the same. A wild blend of like, “I know how to do this, and it’s a part of my being,” and also an amazing curiosity. And if you can find those two things in something, then you should chase it until that goes away.