Music/Interviews

Wild Nothing takes us through his burn and replant mentality

We spoke to Jack Tatum about where he fits into 2018's imagination of DIY bedroom pop and his appreciation for Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Cara Robbins
August 30, 2018

Wild Nothing’s fourth record, Indigo, thrums with nostalgia: nostalgia for human connection, for young love and old romance, for newfound adventure and remembered comforts, for realness over artifice, for high school dances and sunset convertible rides, and for a sound coming from more of a feeling and less from a certain time and place. As the days get shorter and we begin to yearn for warmer memories, Indigo acts as the perfect album to close out the summer.

It makes sense – as the man behind the moniker, Jack Tatum, has stated before, the process of piecing together his fourth studio album was always about making something timeless. “It just boils down to me wanting to fit into some larger narrative, musically, in terms of these artists I love,” he said in a recent press release. And it’s true. The album’s sonic palette harkens back to the work of Bryan Ferry, Fleetwood Mac, Roxy Music, Kate Bush, and The Cure, all of whom have hugely influenced the shaping of Tatum’s music from the very beginning. But whereas 2013’s underrated Life of Pause saw Tatum pursuing as wide a panorama as possible, dream pop flirting with shades of European disco and incorporating subtle string and marimba arrangements, muddy sax, and bass melodies flecked by Philly soul, this new project is a focused fusion of that album and a return to what really put him on the map, 2010’s Gemini.

His songwriting is direct, less questioning and more probing in this technology saturated era (“Running in place / A joke for the age of detachment / This is how we unwind”) and his voice, far more assured than ever before, sits in the center of the mix, whose rich fidelity can be attested to producer Jorge Elbrecht (Ariel Pink, Japanese Breakfast, Gang Gang Dance). Every shimmering synth and cloudy guitar line and reverb drenched percussion hit bubbles up to create a rich tapestry of sound that is quintessential Wild Nothing, and yet, Indigo also just has some extra sheen, sounding a little bit more sublime than any other effort before in his career. The album is a welcome improvement from an artist who continues to push himself at his craft and naturally seek out what calls to him.

We spoke with Tatum over the phone to talk about (among other things) his new album and his ongoing maturation as a musician; his love of podcasts; and his outlook on belonging to a roster of early 00’s bands playing their own unique brand of dream rock, a contingent that have rode out the waves of a changing industry while still remaining successful and making the kind of music they always wanted to make.

A.Side So, I’ll guess we’ll just dive right into it then! Where does this new title, Indigo, stem from?

Jack Tatum: So, there’s a song on the record called “The Closest Thing To Living” – the title comes from a line in that song. That’s generally the case with me; not too invigorating of a story, but a lot of the time, I won’t have a name for the record. Once the record is done, it’s a matter of sorting through the things that I have created and finding something within it that makes sense, that feels like a good cap to the experience. Anyhow, there’s a line in there that basically says, “breathe indigo / it’s the closest thing to living”. It’s the only song on the record that’s kind of explicitly about technology, basically working with this idea of indigo being a representation of giving into technology, giving into that kind of backlit lifestyle of constantly being on your phone or computer.

That’s specifically where the name comes from, but, also as a colour, which is representative of something deeper, I guess. You know, I think there’s something kind of spiritual about it. A lot of people will talk about seeing indigo when they’re meditating. I remember listening to this podcast and this guy was talking about doing mushrooms and how, like for whatever reason, he just saw this giant blob of indigo on the wall he just couldn’t stop staring at it. There’s something about that colour that sort of has a deeper meaning, which is somewhat vague, I suppose.

Right. And coming from this more meditative place – your last record was about slowing down and finding this kind of pause, literally called Life of Pause, fresh off a hard round of touring. I’m supposing you were feeling stretched around this time. Now from that record to this record: it’s been a much shorter span of time putting out these albums. Where are you at in terms of your headspace now? Working on Life of Pause to Indigo… Do you recognize any differences creatively?

Absolutely. Like you even said, looking at the time between records and realizing how much quicker this one came together than the last record. Part of that was circumstantial, and maybe in retrospect there were just more distractions and things going on in my life at the time in between Nocturne and Life of Pause. But also, you know, the fact that I did release Empty Estate in between those, and that I was writing all the while. But in some ways, Life of Pause was born out of an identity crisis, at least creatively. I was trying to figure out what it really was and how I wanted to portray myself as an artist.

I think for a while I got really concerned about being seen as a one-trick pony and pulling too heavily from a certain sound. But I think part of the reason was also being in a better headspace. I think a lot of this record was self-referential in a way that felt very positive. Finally getting to a place of feeling comfortable with the things that I’ve made, the legacy that I’ve created – which feels weird to say because I still feel very young – but after having released my fourth record and two EP’s, I feel like I’ve released a substantial amount of music at this point to know.

It feels strange to be able to be in a position to look back at all this music I’ve created and view it as an outsider. Like, what are the things that I was doing, and what are the types of the sounds that I gravitated towards? Why is that? Is it because they came naturally, or that I could make them easily and I’m good at it? I feel like this record was about getting to that place in a lot of ways.

So, do you find your creative process consists of pushing outward and then you pick up on things later and form connections in hindsight?

Yeah, I think that’s a pretty fair way to put it. I think so much of my creative process is exploratory. I was actually listening to this podcast a couple weeks ago talking about different forms of creativity, breaking it up into two different classes of people. Obviously, it’s an oversimplification of things, but this idea is that the first kind of creative person has a very clear creative vision right off the bat, and they do it. That’s kind of it.

And then there’s the other kind of person, who has to try a lot of different ideas and throw things against the wall, drafting and redrafting ideas in order to get to a place where they’re finally happy with it. And I feel like I relate more to the latter. With every record I’ve made, I kind of just start writing songs, and eventually I’ll get to a place where I’m like, okay, I’ve found it. Or I’ve discovered a sound that’ll carry through the entire record. It’s tricky to figure out how to get a group of songs to feel like they’re part of the same family, you know?

 

I fully accept that it’s much less exciting to be Wild Nothing releasing his fourth record after eight years of releasing records… That being said, I think it’s harder to break in today.

Jack Tatum

Right! Because you’re trying to respect the audience that has been with you from the beginning, and you’re also trying to evolve yourself and push your boundaries as you grow and mature.

Definitely. That’s always something that I’m conscious of. At least in my case, I think it’s unrealistic to say, “oh, I’m just going what I want to do and fuck everyone else!” I mean, at least on some level, sometimes you have to do that to keep growing. But the thing is being nine years into this project, it’s inevitable I’m going to be conscious of not only the things I’ve made in the past but also just the way that those records have affected my life, and other people’s lives. It weighs pretty heavily on the way that I work.

Cara Robbins

I’m just going to pull back the lens for a moment. I view Wild Nothing as belonging to this roster of the early 00’s indie rock scene. There’s been a huge cultural shift with publications of that era either dying out or shifting their focus to other genres and a more diverse audience. How do you view yourself within that change? What does it mean to emerge in that era of music, and what does it mean now in 2018?

I don’t feel like I’m a different position than anyone else that’s ever made music for a prolonged period of time. It’s the cyclical nature of culture in general, I think. I always try to remind myself of the things I’ve lucked out with in my career. I think part of that is just the fact that I started making music at a time where this was this big interest in more home-recorded DIY music, people like me referencing past genres that had gradually fallen out of favour but which were starting to become popular again – shoegaze, post punk, dream pop. Those things were having a moment around 2010, when I released my first record.

I feel like you’re always going to get the most exciting press of your career around the release of your first couple records: that’s when you’re new and people still don’t know much about you and there’s more of a story to tell. I fully accept that it’s much less exciting to be Wild Nothing releasing his fourth record after eight years of releasing records. It’s weird to be at this moment, still being able to remember what it felt like to be 21, and yet, I don’t think I could have imagined releasing my fourth record now, when I was that age.

I think even if there hadn’t been such large shifts in the way music media operates, I think this would still work the same. That being said, I think it’s harder to break in today. I feel like if I had released Gemini right now, I think some people would be into it – but I don’t think it would’ve had the same impact that it did [in 2010]. Timing is everything. I think it’s harder to get people to listen and to write about your music. Look at Pitchfork: it’s crystal clear in my mind how things shifted after Conde Nast bought them, but it’s just the way it is.

Especially in how we consume music: our attention is just so much more fragmented because of social media and streaming.

Exactly. It’s the reality of music culture at the moment. But I also like feel because of that is why it’s such a joy to release my fourth record: things feel far more organic. Seeing the reactions to the singles I’ve put out thus far, it’s been extremely humbling to see that there’s still people connecting with my music. It’s been a great reminder that it doesn’t really matter what’s said about your music. What matters is that people connect to it.

So you touched briefly upon reflecting on the release of your debut album as a young college graduate. If you could go back in time, what is some advice you would give to that younger version of Jack, especially about what it means to create?

Yeah, kind of. I mean, there were things that I struggle with then that I still struggle with now. Care less about what other people think. Everything always felt so fast at the time – I felt I was making decisions very quickly, maybe too much so. Sometimes I wish I had taken more time to consider different business decisions, or wishing that I had more of a different vision for certain projects at times. Sometimes I reflect on Nocturne and I regret not taking advantage of certain things, like releasing certain songs as singles. 

What are some things you want to explore that you haven’t yet as a musician? What calls to you after Indigo?

I’ve really had a big interest lately in writing and producing for other people. I’ve always liked the idea of taking a more backseat approach. Part of that is selfish – wanting to do the fun stuff (which in my mind is the writing and recording part of the music process) and being able to wash my hands and walk away. But there’s also something special about helping someone else seek out their vision and create the thing they want to create. I definitely see that happening over the next five years.

Weirdly, I’ve learned to separate Wild Nothing from myself in some ways – Life of Pause, which I really love, was definitely a hard pill to swallow for some of my fans. I think part of that reaction was because I intentionally abandoned some of the elements that made my initial success. It’s got a sound, a certain vibe. I don’t ever feel I’m ever compromising my creativity writing songs for this project. But there are other things I’m interested in – I have considered trying to work on a more classic singer/songwriter record that isn’t glued down to certain genre sounds or conventions.

Who would be your dream collaborators?

There’s a lot of people I’d love to get in a room with and write. I’ve always really respected Chaz Bundwick [of Toro y Moi] a lot. There’s this Swedish band called Liss, whose vocalist is amazing. I’d love to hear his voice on some of my music.

You mentioned your love of podcasts – what else is on your cultural radar? Anything you’ve been listening to, watching or reading lately that you’d recommend?

I saw [Bo Burnham’s] Eighth Grade yesterday. That was super touching. I recently have been listening to this podcast, Ear Hustle, a lot. I’ve been watching this really dorky sci-fi series called The Expanse. My wife and I always put on Star Talk with Neil de Grasse Tyson before we go to sleep. There’s something about his voice that’s very soothing. [laughs]

I’ve read somewhere that you’re really into film music too, right?

Yeah, I went through a really big phase where I was collecting and listening to a lot of Italian film soundtracks. People like Merricone and others. And definitely! I think the reality is that they are a massive commitment. If the right project came along, where I felt my skills could fit, then totally.

With this young class of creatives like Clairo, Cuco, and Rex Orange County popularizing DIY bedroom pop again, something which you really sparked your career on in those early days – what are your thoughts on people enjoying this kind of music in the mainstream again?

I think it’s based in authenticity. I’ll admit I’m not super familiar with these artists, but I feel like it stems from this idea that these people are approachable and their success is attainable. I call it the “Mac DeMarco aesthetic.” These are people that you feel like you could know and hang out with. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily classify myself as that; I’m a much more reserved person. I prefer to exist in the background. That said, I had similar figures for me back when I was starting, too; people like Phil Elverum, early Ariel Pink records, Queens From Venus. This idea that, at least in how things sounded and were produced – I felt like I could do this! I had this surge of creativity because those records didn’t feel far off from something I could make myself.

I’m always trying to polish things a little more. You might lose a little accessibility in doing so, but I’ve made my peace with that.

Jack Tatum

And we’re so much more enabled today, in terms of the tools we have. The recording process is so much easier. There’s less of a barrier to entry, and music technology has improved exponentially. Obviously, that has played a huge part in your own evolution as an artist.

Definitely. A lot of people don’t know this, but when I made Gemini – I did that whole record in GarageBand. It was the only program I could afford at the time. But since then, so much has changed and programs have become so much cheaper. It’s a double-edged sword, obviously, because technology has allowed creative people to make so much more stuff that sounds great, and not have to spend a lot of money, but then at the same time, it also means that the more people can do that, the more oversaturated the market becomes, and it makes it harder to find an audience.

Production technology has played a pivotal role in my own work. Nearly every song I’ve ever written was written while they were being recorded. It’s very rare that I sit down at a piano or pick up a guitar and write a song. For me, recording is writing. I think that’s common for a lot of people these days. I’m always trying to polish things a little more. You might lose a little accessibility in doing so, but I’ve made my peace with that.

Life of Pause was about stepping back and taking a pause to consider where you want to go – with Indigo, do you feel like you have arrived at that place?

Yeah. Well, I feel like I’ve arrived temporarily. I’m extremely proud of this record, and in fact, of every record I’ve made. But part of my process is embodying this burn and replant mentality, that I could still always do better. I’m quite hard on myself. That is what drives me. And until I’ve reached that, I think I’ll just keep creating.

Indigo by Wild Nothing drops on August 31st.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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