Jack Antonoff’s Bonnaroo State of Mind
I played Bonnaroo for the first time in 2005. To this day, it’s still the greatest concert I’ve ever been part of. Bonnaroo was a myth to me. I had never been, but had heard all of these amazing stories. My band at the time, Steel Train, didn’t have anybody working for us. We showed up and loaded in our gear ourselves. All of the stagehands looked at us like we were crazy. We were scheduled for midnight on Thursday in That Tent, and anyone who knows anything about festivals knows that is the most unbeatable spot in festival history. At first, there were 200 people milling about in this huge tent and you don’t really know what to expect. But then, you take the stage and 45 seconds later, there’s 15,000 people going apeshit.
It was just truly the most surreal experience of my life. After that show, I remember having this feeling—whatever happens, I really hope to be making music my whole life and touring. No one can take that away. It was this magical moment you can never go back to.
Most of the other big festivals are either in a city or near a city, but whether you are on a 30-day road trip with your friends or arriving on a tour bus, you have to immerse yourself at Bonnaroo. You are trucking through these campgrounds and in the mud. I think it connects the bands and the audience in a way you don’t get at other big festivals. In simple terms, it lets you know who’s legit and who’s not.
I’ve played Bonnaroo four times now and have had this unique experience where I’ve gone through all these stages: They gave us a shot playing on Thursday, we had a daytime spot on Friday in 2006 and made all these steps until fun. headlined That Tent Sunday night in 2012. Even if we are playing Europe or Los Angeles, if my parents see Bonnaroo on our schedule, then that’s the show they will go to. They grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s when things happened in the moment. Bonnaroo is one of the very rare atmospheres where it’s happening right there. You don’t see a million people with their cell phones taking pictures. I think that’s the connection to the great music of the ‘60s and ‘70s. And I think that’s why it’s an atmosphere that— out of all the places I’ve played in the world—my parents want to come back to again and again.
A lot of the stuff we accomplished with fun. didn’t matter in the eyes of the Bonnaroo world: When you go to Bonnaroo, no one gives a shit about record sales or media buzz or radio play—that’s just not part of the Bonnaroo world. Bonnaroo is about live music and that’s why a band like Widespread Panic can headline even though they aren’t necessarily always on the radio.
When I played Bonnaroo with fun., I wasn’t nervous because I believed so deeply in us as a live band—that is what we were founded on and we grew up in the Bonnaroo spirit. Before fun. had all the mainstream success, we were just on the road 365 days a year honing in on the live show—creating an atmosphere that was really in the tradition of the jamband scene.
I was really excited to get to Bonnaroo and just be in a place where I knew that people would be looking for what we are most proud of doing. It was about getting to the core of what really matters. I knew every single person we were playing for was the exact person I would want to hear our music in that moment.
Our philosophy is rooted in that jamband mentality: thinking of interesting covers based on what’s going on culturally, having people sit in, playing with groups like Rebirth Brass Band and changing the set because we realize that people are coming to four, five or six, seven, eight or nine shows on a tour. We put all our energy into the production of the shows because every night is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That’s something I learned from Bonnaroo and seeing bands like The Flaming Lips, Primus and My Morning Jacket—when they come out, it’s the be-all, end-all.
There are images I will never forget: seeing My Morning Jacket play a late-night tent show with Andrew Bird, Vampire Weekend’s Thursday night slot in 2008, Phish when they closed the festival in 2012 and Tom Petty’s headlining set a few years ago. Even Metallica—I really had no idea what to expect the year they headlined, and I remember watching them and just thinking to myself, “OK, I’m not the biggest Metallica fan, but I understand why they’re one of the biggest bands in the world” because they are completely fucking shit up right now in front of 80,000 people. I remember Bonnaroo’s promoters telling me they look at programming the festival like they would create an iPod playlist. All these different kinds of music can fit together perfectly. You can listen to Neil Young, and then, Robyn and Pearl Jam. It somehow works and creates an even greater experience than any one artist because you feel attached to music as a culture.
I really believe the culture at festivals has turned people into better musicians. If you are playing a club, then people know your music when they come to see you. But if you are playing a festival, then you have to win over the crowd and, if you don’t kill it, then everyone will know. I think that it really holds a mirror up to itself in a way— as a band, you can’t roll up to a festival where 30 or 40 of the greatest bands are performing and put on a video for show. You will get eaten alive.
Who will play Bonnaroo is not a black or white question, and they don’t just program indie bands and jambands. Robyn will play Bonnaroo but Katy Perry won’t. The underlying thread is they book real bands making great music who can bring it live. I think that in a culture where there is so much music—everyone has a band, everyone is a songwriter and everyone is playing live— you need to have some sort of equalizer. Every music scene, no matter what type of music you play, has its Bonnaroo bands. I’d rather be a Bonnaroo band than a radio band.