Jack Antonoff: Why I'm Starting a New Jersey Music Festival

"I want everything about this festival to feel like New Jersey," says Bleachers singer about Shadow of the City

Jack Antonoff details his latest venture: the New Jersey-centric music festival Shadow of the City. Credit: Paul Marotta/Getty

Bleachers frontman Jack Antonoff is looking to revitalize the world's image of New Jersey as an artistic hub with the formation and curation of his first annual Shadow of the City festival. On September 19th, eight bands will play the Stone Pony SummerStage at Asbury Park, with Bleachers headlining the event. Charli XCX (who will already be on tour with Bleachers for their co-headlining trek across the U.S.), Vic Mensa, the Front Bottoms, MisterWives, Cults, How to Dress Well and Robert Delong will join the singer.

Antonoff spoke with Rolling Stone about growing up in the shadow of New York City, his upcoming docuseries Thank You and Sorry (debuting on Google Play on June 16th) and his passion for what his home state has to offer.

How did Shadow of the City come together?
It's something I've always dreamed about doing. I love music festivals, and I think that with the landscape of the music business rapidly changing, it's the one thing that is only getting better and more exciting. With all the conversations about the ways people consume music and about streaming, live music is just this rock. I've always wanted to do this. Even more than that, I grew up in New Jersey and lived there for 28 years. New Jersey is part of who I am. I've always thought that it's the perfect place for a festival.

Is your festival modeled after any others?
I've played almost every festival. This year, I'm playing Bonnaroo and it'll be my 10th anniversary of the first time I played it, which is kind of crazy. I've just seen so much of what works and what doesn't, so we're bringing all of that information in for the first year. We're starting small. The cap is 5,000, and we have eight bands. The goal is to not jump the shark with this and do something really exciting and really cool and really accessible for people. It'll slowly grow if it makes sense. 

What's your favorite festival memory?
Playing Bonnaroo for the first time in 2005. At that point, my band [Steel Train] was not big at all. No one had any idea who we are. We didn't even know what Bonnaroo was. We didn't know what we were getting into. We were playing Thursday night at midnight, and we were like "What is this?" We showed up, put our stuff on stage, start the show and within five minutes, all the people there were going completely fucking apeshit. The biggest crowd I had ever played to before was 300 people, so jumping to thousands and thousands of people is very hard to describe. It's just this insane feeling. The energy is completely apocalyptic. I still get this flashback every time I play to a big crowd.

"I grew up in New Jersey and lived there for 28 years. It's part of who I am [and] I've always thought it's the perfect place for a festival."

How long has the planning been actively in the works?
We've been talking about it for a year and putting it together the last four to six months. It's really been my manager, my agent and all the promoter partners we have on it just going through it and figuring out what we can do that will be incredibly awesome and exciting for people and put it in a space with enough things going on outside of the music that it feels like an entire day. It's been a really huge amount of work in a totally awesome way. It's not the kind of thing where you're like, "I wanna do a festival!" and just throw it together. There's everything from permits to food trucks...so many angles. 

Your upcoming web series Thank You and Sorry examines your tour life and the music business. Would the production of Shadow of the City have a place in the series? 
Yeah, I feel like I've moved past this idea of like "This is what I do. This is what I do on this side and that side" and keeping things separate. In many ways, Thank You and Sorry speaks to that, saying, "This is the landscape of my life. This is what it means, and this is how it plays out being me." 

What's the significance of the festival's name? 
The title is really special to me. I grew up in New Jersey, and it's one of those places where you spend your life trying to get out. It's funny because it's one of the most incredible places in the world. The term "shadow of the city," specifically, means what it sounds like. New Jersey is such a unique place because it is literally in the shadow of the greatest city in the entire world. So that creates an unmistakable feeling, good and bad. You're the constant younger brother. You're constantly looking through the window at the party. You're always less.

You can hear it in the music. Thinking about when I was growing up, New York City music — the Strokes, the Velvet Underground — is the kind of "we don't give a shit," shoegaze type thing. But in New Jersey music — from when my parents played me Springsteen to growing up in the New Jersey punk and hardcore scene — it was all larger than life. There was so much hope and excitement there. That comes from this underdog feeling of living in the shadow of the city. I always thought that when I did a festival, I'd want to bring that feeling to life. That's how I grew up. So many people spend their time trying to get out of New Jersey, then as soon as they do, they realize that it's actually the greatest place on Earth. There is no better way to exist in art, in music, in general than to always feel like you're telling the truth and to always feel like you're slightly less than. 

Was the New Jersey locale your first thought for the festival?
Jersey is weird because of the proximity to New York City. You're 10 miles away. New Jersey is such an incredible place, with amazing music fans and amazing music that comes out of Jersey but a lack of shows in Jersey. Everyone goes to New York City, and whenever you play a show, there's always a radius clause. You can't play within 100 miles of wherever that is. So there's this crazy lack of music in this amazing place that produces so much great music. I always knew that it had to be extension of how I feel about where I grew up. It was always going to be a Jersey thing.

The Stone Pony and Asbury Park are such legendary locations. What's been your relationship with that area?
That entire area is extremely special to me since I grew up right down there. My parents had a house on the Jersey shore, so every summer I would live down there. I've driven down those roads a million times. I've been on those beaches since I was 11 years old. It's amazing to build a festival in a place that is home.

The Stone Pony is an incredible place. There are so few clubs nowadays that have an actual feeling and history to them. When I was down there going through the site and picking out where things were going to be, there were people just driving by and getting out to take pictures in front of the Stone Pony. You'd think it was the fuckin' Alamo. You don't get that at the House of Blues. It's just a very special thing. The festival is in the parking lot of the Stone Pony but inside, we're going to set up an arcade with a bunch of pinball machines. It's gonna be very inclusive of the actual space.

"Everything from the vendors to everything going on is Jersey-based. We're going to have record stands where it's just Jersey music."

Do you see the festival becoming a big launchpad for New Jersey's music scene?
I want everything about this festival to feel like New Jersey. It's not just like "Hey, we got a bunch of bands who are from New Jersey." Everything from the vendors to everything going on is totally Jersey-based. We're going to have record stands where it's just Jersey music. It's going to be based around that. That's never going to get lost in the festival. It is meant to be a New Jersey festival.

What do you envision for the actual day of the festival?
We're going to have a ton of fun stuff going on. The first year we're doing one stage, so there are no competing set times. All the artists will play back to back to back on the one stage. We're going to bring in all these local food trucks and carnival games. Weird NJ, which is one of the greatest magazines of all time, is going to have a presence. My sister [Rachel Antonoff] is a designer, and she's going to have a presence. We'll have records for sale. It's going to be like a little flea market/vendor area modeled after when I grew up going to punk shows at fire halls. You'd go outside and that's where you'd buy your records and your food for the night. There will also be a presence from the Ally Coalition, which is a gay, lesbian and trans organization that I work with. So it's going to be just like a whole village of incredibly cool things all centered around New Jersey. It's going to be wild.

Did you curate the line-up yourself? 
Yeah, I picked all the bands specifically. Charli, I love. We're doing a ton of shows together, and I think she's a wonderful artist and puts on an amazing show and has a super hardcore energy about her. Vic is, without a doubt, my favorite new hip-hop artist. I love everything he's doing. I love his entire vibe. He's bringing such a cool element to the festival. How to Dress Well, Tom [Krell] is a friend and also a complete genius. I love what he does, and he's an unbelievable artist and unbelievable singer. MisterWives, we toured with them. They're really good friends and put on an amazing show. Cults has been a band that I've loved for many years. The Front Bottoms are from Jersey and just starting to blow up. Robert Delong is a new artist and is super incredible. It's a cross-section of bands I love and bands I'm just getting into. 

Charli had recently described your co-headlining tour as a "mini-festival." Will the appearance from both of you at the festival be an extension of the tour or something separate?
Usually when you tour, you headline and have openers. Everything's building up to this big show. It's so cool with co-headliners that Charli and I are bringing out tons of production for these huge shows. It's one show, but it's really two great shows. I love Charli, and we get along real famously, so I think there's going to be a traveling circus element to the tour. 

Will you be sharing the stage at all or intertwining your sets while on tour? Or will they be two separate sets?
Definitely! We actually started having conversations about some interesting stuff we want to do. The tour will be extremely collaborative in many ways.

What do you foresee for the festival's future?
I want to do it forever, and I want it to be something that I want to curate every year and not headline. With all these new festivals coming up, I think there's a danger for all of them to become too corporate or too much like the other ones. I just want it to exist in its own place. I'm someone who writes songs and plays in a band. It's not like all I do is the festival, so I feel like I can achieve that because it exists almost to the left of me, so I can keep it really bizarre and interesting and let it grow naturally.

I just want it to be this thing every September that everyone looks forward to in New Jersey. People can come from the city and it's just like this last hurrah for the summer.