Reluctant Stardom: Three Days with Wild Nothing’s Jack Tatum

Wild Nothing’s Jack Tatum talks with PopMatters about finding his little pocket in the music world.

From a mod granite-clad basement in a Union Square lounge, indie-rock radio station KEXP was about to start a live broadcast from the CMJ Music Marathon. Wild Nothing was trying to buy back 22 minutes of lateness with a stealth load-in of five guitars, a double stack of Roland synthesizers, and a montage of foot pedals and fuzzboxes. Unlike most of the thousand-plus bands that populate CMJ every year, there was no laptop.

Jack Tatum — songwriter, lead singer, guitarist, and all of Wild Nothing in the studio — scrawled a setlist on the back of binder paper. He held his head, still wearing a brown knit cap that matched his combat boots, crossing out as much as he wrote. The rest of the band approached, free whiskey shots in hand, and he relaxed his shoulders.

“You guys want to help me think about this?”

Six songs in hand, they climbed the step up to the wooden platform stage, inches from the small audience of mostly press, fans, and friends. When guitarist Nathan Goodman sent out a few riffs of a floating melody line, heavy with chest-echoing reverb, the room was stunned into silence. As they finished their first song, the only soundcheck they had before going live on air, genuine whistles and cheers punctuated the last notes. Tatum stepped up to the mic without looking up.

“It’s a little weird having to soundcheck in front of people, so excuse us.”

Even with a handful of out-of-tune or off-tempo moments – small tells of a cold start after a few weeks in separate cities – their short live set showed the engrossing power of Tatum’s ethereal dream-pop, made danceable with recognizable, pure ‘80s hooks. Near the end, the entire audience was bobbing their heads and dancing in place. In his third year touring since he recorded his first album, Gemini, at home in Virginia, Tatum is learning to like performing.

“It’s a pretty busy week,” he said, closing Wild Nothing’s first performance at the thousand-plus band CMJ Music Marathon, “especially if you’re in a band and your life kind of sucks for a week.” He smiled for the first time in the show. “Just kidding.”

Wild Nothing wasn’t just another number at CMJ this year. Fresh off the late summer release of their second album, Nocturne, Wild Nothing has made it into radio rotations, shot a video with indie movie star Michelle Williams and hit the Billboard charts for the first time, taking #1 on Heatseeker’s two weeks after the release and notching slots on a handful of other charts, including the star-tracking Billboard 200. In addition to booking the coveted live broadcast for KEXP, the band also sold out two nights at one of CMJ’s largest venues, The Bowery Ballroom.

After signing with the small dream-pop label Captured Tracks three years ago, Tatum wasn’t prepared for how quickly his rise to indie notoriety began. Within a few months, he transitioned from being a college senior signing a deal to distribute Wild Nothing’s homemade first album, Gemini, to touring small venues and, over a summer, leading a band that could sell out medium-sized venues in New York, home to hundreds of other indie musicians.

“I was just like a kid that made some music and sort of entered a zone that I wasn’t expecting. So, yeah, I used to be stressing all the time about it,” he said.

Three years later, his experience has increased, but his reaction hasn’t changed much. “I do feel a lot of pressure, I think. I feel pressure to be something that I’m not sometimes.”

Five hours before their first of two sold-out shows headlining the Bowery Ballroom, all five members of Wild Nothing were spread out around a leather sectional on the third floor. Nathan Goodman, the guitarist for the touring band since it began and a college friend of Tatum’s, said he hoped to learn something during the interview.

Tatum, wearing a worn t-shirt and faded black jeans, sat folded over his guitar, tightening fresh strings. He breezed through his middle school beginnings in music – learning guitar from his dad and listening to influences from his parent’s record collection and “terrible pop-punk bands.” His current affinity for mid-’80s alternative and mainstream pop, he said, developed gradually through internet music trolling and “sort of obsessive” record collecting in late high school and college. After a couple of other failed bands, he developed the sound of Wild nothing in late college.

One of the big differences between Wild Nothing and the cadre of other dream-pop bands making pretty, danceable jangle like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, label mates DIIV, or slow-core counterparts Beach House, are the elements in the music chemistry. Tatum’s formula of foggy, ethereal synths under the surf-inspired guitar and topped with wistful love rhymes is dosed with recognizable references to mid-’80s alternative and mainstream pop.

“I’m very much interested in pop and what pop means, what it is about certain songs that catch people immediately. What is the hook of the song or what is the thing in the song that when I listen to the song, what is the first thing that I’m noticing? Like this sort of indescribable thing.”

Tatum’s song constructs include Johnny Marr and Robert Smith guitar riffs, the vaguely Asian, tinkly synths of Bowie’s “Little China Girl”, a running thread of Fleetwood Mac and some big ‘80s sounds a la Duran Duran. The moody world he creates with those references is a clean, positive kind of nostalgia, very different from the seething sexuality and biting sarcasm of their roots in artists like Morrissey and David Bowie. His music is a sunnier version of alternative.

“That’s a quality of music that I really admire and honestly it’s kind of what I think I aim for with my music,” he said. “I could listen to like, a really sort of dark Goth band, but there are moments in some songs that still kind of have a pop feel.”

His penchant for ‘80s pop is a signature of Wild Nothing. He brightened when talking about the niche, admitting that he was drawn to both melancholy new-wave and alt-pop favorites, but also the music that, “exists everywhere you go” of mega pop stars like Michael Jackson and Prince. Though he’s been pinned to a “C-86” nostalgia, referencing an obscure mixtape of British indie guitar-pop compiled by music magazine NME, he said he listened to that after seeing it in reviews.

“I think there is a musical lineage that my music is kind of falling into that’s very real and very purposeful. When people talk about specific bands that are bands that I’ve drawn inspiration from, that’s totally the truth, that’s not offensive to me.”

Around the time Captured Tracks signed Tatum, under the moniker of Wild Nothing, he already had internet buzz. A smoothed-out, reverb-heavy cover of ‘80s queen of weird Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” Tatum made for his girlfriend went music blog viral.

“People describe us as such a referential band all the time that it’s kind of humorous that the first thing that would catch people’s attention was a cover – somebody else’s song,” he laughed, leaning, as he often did, over the body of his guitar.

While that internet momentum has helped him and many other up-and-coming musicians in the last decade, who didn’t have to sweat it out in empty bars on the live music circuit to gain an audience, Tatum spoke with stronger words about the internet’s influence than almost any other topic.

“I think as a tool the internet helps my band, it helps a lot of bands. So, I’m thankful for that, but I kind of hate the internet at the same time,” he said, “If I’m able to take a step back from the thankfulness, then I’m like, man the internet has ruined music in a lot of ways. I think it’s made it totally temporary. It’s made music such a throwaway object.”

After their first headlining show to a capacity crowd of curious CMJ badge-holders and devoted fans dancing around an invisible maypole and reaching toward the stage, Wild Nothing and circle of friends, management, and earnest-looking girls in floral dresses crowded into the third-floor green room. The coffee table was littered with empty soda cans and Oreo wrappers and the chatter was mostly about acquaintances in common and what they planned to do in the city during their three-day stint at CMJ.

The band, who are Wild Nothing for a few weeks of touring per year, wanted reactions to the show. Both Goodman and Jeremiah Johnson, touring drummer, tried to explain why there were some hiccups in the KEXP show the day before – they weren’t tight yet because this part of the tour was just beginning. It would get better. They both gave Tatum credit for creating alone in the studio, with some help from guest instrumentalists like the drummer from the alt-dance band, Small Black.

Tatum was near the back of the room, keeping the same position next to a small group of friends the entire time. He leaned against a door jamb while his girlfriend, an earthier, feminine Zooey Deschanel, clasped her arms around his neck.

He doesn’t talk about his personal life in interviews. The most he offers is that his winsome lyrics – often about specific women and the plot twists of romance – are semi-autobiographical.

“I guess you could say I’m a romantic – definitely an optimist,” he said, taking a breath. “I hope for the best, usually. But I’m also a realist, so I think that’s where the conflict comes from. I think a lot of times it’s extremely clear when something isn’t working. That enters my music to a certain extent.”

Part of what he writes is for mood. He insists it’s not about his own sexuality. “That plays very little with my music I think,” he said, blushing deeply and taking a moment to compose himself. “I’m just a boring heterosexual male.”

He keeps a close circle of relationships, still maintaining friendships and touring with musicians from Virginia and Georgia who he trusts. With the exception of a few bands on his label who also create fuzzy dream-pop and rose from bedroom production to performing artists, Tatum doesn’t feel connected to a music scene.

“It’s kind of a bummer,” he admitted, adding that the internet has diminished the idea of regional music scenes. Touring with other acts in his genre, especially label mates like Beach Fossils, does give him more of a music network. “I feel close to a lot of bands that are on our label, Captured Tracks. There’s kind of this kindred spirit vibe going on.”

His management recognizes his reluctance toward celebrity and his need for privacy, carefully working to “keep a low-key situation.” That’s becoming more difficult with the demands of supporting a successful album. But so far, shyness hasn’t stopped him.

The studio, or whatever room he uses for that function, is where Jack Tatum finds the most personal joy. He wrote both Wild Nothing albums in the small Southern cities where he spent most of his early twenties – far from indie music epicenters or the distractions of city life.

Wild Nothing was born in Blacksburg, Virginia, in the last couple years of his college career at Virginia Tech – a school known more for math whizzes and budding engineers than musicians. He had little interest in campus life or his communications major, preferring to immerse himself in music. The film and writing courses he enjoyed the most found outlets in his music. Several tracks from Gemini have cinematic fade-ins, soundtrack structures, and narrative threads in both words and sounds.

“I love recording. I love being able to translate abstract ideas into songs,” he mused. “It’s been really interesting to see how people perceive it. But it’s never been on my mind in the process of making something.”

Conceptual themes for individual songs and whole albums are a hallmark of Wild Nothing. When Tatum is writing and recording, he is immersed in his own ideas and whatever music is influencing his work at the time. He carries that focused vision into every aspect of Wild Nothing’s identity from smoky jewel-toned stage sets, a moon-cycle website for Nocturne, and impressionistic, choose-your-own album art.

He penned Nocturne while living in Savannah, Georgia, known for its rising hard rock and metal scene more than indie jangle-pop. The Church and Fleetwood Mac were on heavy rotation. This album, the first time he recorded in higher-end studios in New York, finds Tatum referencing his influences in a more subtle, less patchwork way. On “Paradise”, he mimics Steve Kilbey’s baritone, similar to “Under the Milky Way”. Warmer, four-on-the-floor mid-80s Fleetwood Mac weaves throughout his compositions. “Rheya” and “This Chain Won’t Break” are obvious nods to “Rhiannon” and “The Chain” in name, if not always in style.

Nocturne is a much more orchestrated album, complete with live strings, drums and bass, whereas Gemini was a collage of sound experiments with an icier synth-produced tone. Tatum is searching for the balance between smoother pop constructions and cohesive album identity, while maintaining his own nostalgic, but upbeat aesthetic.

“I’m not as good at experimentation. I’m not particularly good at breaking any sort of conventional songwriting standards,” he said. “I’m very much sort of a slave to doing things a certain way and writing songs that are structured and I’m okay with that. That’s kind of what I look for in music.”

Maybe this is all practice for what he sees developing in the long term.

“I’d like to be more involved with production at a certain point. I think that’s where my true interest lies, more than with performing, though, I’m learning to like performing. I definitely see myself more as a behind-the-scenes kind of person. It suits my personality a lot better, I think.”

But the momentum of Wild Nothing, as Nocturne continues racking up radio play, sold-out shows, and major retailer endorsements like Best Buy, is pushing Tatum more to the front, not less. It may be that quietly-created, aspiration-al, moon-cycle opus that brings him closer to the star stratosphere.

“When I think about my place in music, it’s just trying to find my little pocket of the musical world where I can just exist and be happy about what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished,” he said.

“I’m a pretty introverted person, so I’m not looking for any sort of like universal…what would you say…fame?”

He laughed quietly, lightly picking his guitar strings. “Fame, I guess.”