Wild Nothing's Jack Tatum on Dream Pop and Pigeonholing
PopMatters speaks with Wild Nothing's Jack Tatum about moving home to Virginia, musical transitions, and how to build on the best influences from the past.
31 August 2018
Jack Tatum, the creative force behind dream pop band Wild Nothing, has always kept one foot in the past with his '80s shoegaze and synthpop influences, but also one foot squarely in the future.
What has set Tatum apart is that he only utilizes the best parts of those early influences with fairly wondrous studio effects and synthesizers, while fusing it with his wholly original, guitar-based indie music. The result is usually transcendent and without ever sounding too artificial nor crossing into over-sentimentality. Put another way, Tatum has mastered the art of turning almost subconscious feelings and experiences (the dream) into sublime, well-crafted, indie pop (the pop).
Wild Nothing has been a prime force in what has been something of a second wave of dream pop bands in the last ten years (e.g., Beach House, DIIV, Beach Fossils, Craft Spells). Tatum has a couple of classic albums on his resume, already, including Gemini (2010) and Nocturne (2012), and he has continued to evolve and expand the scope of Wild Nothing's music. The band's 2016 LP Life of Pause was also well-received and marked a shift in the group's direction with fresh sounds (e.g., some Philly Soul), while the just-released Indigo has veered back into a more traditional Wild Nothing sound. Tatum and Wild Nothing remain on a steady course with virtually no missteps in now almost ten years of music-making.
So where are Tatum and Wild Nothing at today? PopMatters just had a chance to do a retrospective on Wild Nothing, and now gets to catch up with the singer-songwriter-guitarist, himself. PopMatters spoke with Tatum about moving back to his home state of Virginia, musical transitions, and how to build on the best influences from the past.
So where are you at right now?
I'm actually in Virginia, my wife and I just moved to Virginia. I had been living in Los Angeles for a few years, but I'm back in Virginia now. I grew up in Virginia, so...
So, you're back there permanently?
Yeah, were in the middle of looking for places in Richmond. Yeah, it's kind of a weird time in my life I'm making a lot of big decisions, and I'm doing a lot of stuff all at the same time, so it's kind of insane, but it's good.
You've bounced around a little bit? What made you decide on Virginia? As a guy in the music industry, to permanently move to Virginia?
I grew up in Virginia; I went to school here. I kind of moved around, I've bounced around for like eight or nine years. I lived in New York for a little while and then I was last in L.A. for a little while. And I like both. I didn't really make the decision to leave Los Angeles because I didn't like it. I have always said just said that I think I can do what I do anywhere, so in some ways, I'm sort of putting my money where my mouth is with that. But I think it's true, I've always had this feeling that I might end up back in Virginia at some point.
You've never been part of any music scene, so much. You started off [producing music by himself] in your bedroom...
Yeah, I started making music in Virginia and I was living in Blacksburg because that's where I was going to school and that's where I made the first record. I've always been around other people that were making music, but not so much big scene that you would think of, you know. I was always kind of making music that was somewhat outside of like what other people in town were interested in. I think I've always kind of had to just follow my own interest and not going that way since I was young. I never really played in bands growing up like other people did. I went from recording stuff on my own ... I don't want to say isolation because I don't really view it as a negative thing, but it's just kind of like self-reliant; if I want to hear something or make a certain kind of music I've always just felt like, okay, well I just got to make it happen for myself.
You have a couple of singles out and an album that just released. How do you feel about all of that?
Yeah, I'm feeling good. I'm feeling really good about this record and just excited to get new music out and excited that I was able to get it together and in just a couple of years instead of four years, like the last record. [laughs] But I'm anxious for people to hear this one. So far, the response for this record and for the singles that have come out -- I'm definitely excited about where things are sitting.
How would you describe Indigo? I've heard a couple of the singles, but I'm still sort of taking it in, but how would you describe it?
I think the way I've been talking about it with other people is that it goes back to just where my head was at when I started recording this record, which is that I think it kind of became really important to me to get back to figuring out like, okay, well what is the identity of Wild Nothing?
But it's me sort of looking at the other records that I've done and seeing what worked and what didn't work and then kind of combining it into this new record in a lot of ways. That's kind of how I feel about it. I like that it has much more in common with the first two records than the last record, Life of Pause.
I can't imagine that anyone would hear this and be terribly surprised that it's a Wild Nothing record, you know? I think maybe that's more so what I'm getting at. I feel like it's pretty identifiable as being a Wild Nothing record and whatever that might mean to someone else I don't really know, but it's pretty in line with what I've done in the past.
On Life of Pause, though it was clearly a Wild Nothing record, you brought in some specific additions, such as some Philly Soul, and maybe some disco elements. Is there anything specific that you brought to this album?
Kind of. In some ways with the last record, Life of Pause, I think there were more deviations from the past records, partly because at that time, I don't want to say I was bored, but I guess I was getting worried about being pigeonholed and I wanted to see what it would feel like to try and kind of veer away from some of the more obvious, the '80s influences and references, that I've always kind of dipped into. And so that was part of the sound of that record even though to me when I listened back to that record, and it sounds very much like a Wild Nothing record.
But, that being said, with this record, it was kind of like coming around to those reference points again. So, there's a lot of things about this record; it's really intentionally referencing, again, a lot of '80s music, but I feel like this time around it's a little bit more in a pop realm and looking at bands like Tears for Fears and Roxy Music. Especially in terms of the sound of the record. I really wanted the record to be pretty crystal sounding, you know? I wanted it to sound kind of shiny; I wanted it to sound pretty hi-fi.
This record, I think as far as production techniques, I spent a lot of time coming up with details and kind of going crazy doing that. But as far as instrumentation and stuff go, there's a fair amount of sax on this record. I got pretty into finding weird old digital synthesizers, and I have an interest in trying to take things that are sort of taboo in people's minds, which I think a lot of '80s music is, for whatever reason. I've never really understood it, but I always love this idea that you can take something that it sounds cheesy and sort of figure out how to emote with it again or figure out a way to kind of like, try and make it relevant again or try and give it some sort of like, weight, that maybe people wouldn't think that it has, if that makes any sense?
Yeah. I feel like a lot of this new indie pop/dream pop, guys like you learned their lessons from the '80s, where some if it crossed into cheesiness, some got carried away with their synthesizers, and probably not specifically the bands you're talking about, but these new groups, like Beach House, take the best parts of the '80s.
That's one of the main perks of being a musician in 2018 is having so much music to look back on and learn from, and that's aesthetically how I view myself, I'm just constantly cataloging ideas in my head as I listen to music. Like, really trying to kind of take the best parts or maybe not even the best parts, but at least the parts that I like from songs that I hear, or bands that I love and figuring out the right ways to kind of repurpose those and add it to what it is that I already do. It can it be a tricky balance sometimes I feel like that's the balance that I'm always trying to define is like, okay, how can I do justice by these references that I have, but also like not just completely copy what it is that they do?
And part of that I think is just having more confidence in yourself as a songwriter and just realizing that even if I tried to just wholesale copy somebody else, it's actually really, really difficult to copy someone well. You're inevitably going to mess it up just because that's human nature. And, so, I think that's kind of an interesting thing to do. It's just trying to figure out where that line is.
On your press release, there is a quote from the author and scientist Ray Kurzweil, and it's something about how machines are "part of our humanity", and referencing the "singularity". Was that your idea to put that quote in there?
I wasn't but the person that wrote the bio, we had had a really long conversation one afternoon and were talking about all kinds of stuff, and we got on to talking about Kurzweil. I had been reading his books earlier this year, or last year, I guess rather, and so we were just talking about that, we're talking about the singularity, and there's one song on the record called "The Closest Thing to Living", which is kind of about that, loosely. It's really the only song on the record that's intentionally about our relationship with technology, and it's kind of more, you know, if you listened to the lyrics and dissected it, just this feeling of like being with someone but not really being super present. Which I think happens a lot, and just this idea of sitting next to someone or sitting next to your loved ones and just kind of like everyone's doing their own thing on their phone or their computer or whatever.
And ultimately, to me, it's a song that is about kind of like getting into that technology, which I think I think the way that he talks about artificial intelligence and the ways that we're inevitably going to join with technology is not pessimistic. It's very optimistic. And I always used to feel very pessimistic about that and so reading his work and then it kind of got me thinking. There are so many kinds of reasons to just give in. It's just kind of touching on that, but that's a much deeper conversation to have.
When I read that quote the first thing I thought of was "more human than human", which is from Blade Runner but then it was also a Rob Zombie hit song in the mid-'90s.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. [laughs]
I thought it was funny. He took his metal and electronic effects. So there is a connection between you and Rob Zombie, maybe.
Yeah, I'm there for it.
I happened to see My Bloody Valentine last night in concert, here in Philadelphia.
Yeah. Knowing I was talking to you today, I couldn't help but think to ask. Are you a fan? I am guessing you may have spent a lot of time with Loveless at some point.
Yeah, I've seen them, I've seen them a couple of times. There was a while back where they that hadn't been playing shows at all, and then when they just first started playing shows again in the 2000s and they announced a string of shows on the east coast, and it was all weird cities, and it happened to be Richmond, Virginia was one of them, and I was in Virginia at the time. So, I got to see them then, and that was really great. And then I saw them again when I was living in New York. Yeah, so much good stuff. I haven't been listening to them that much recently, but I always seem to have a different favorite EP or something. They have an EP called The Glider EP that I really love.
Last question. What is your favorite under-the-radar album of all-time, and why?
Hmmm. There's this guy Bill Nelson, that I really love. he was in a band he was in a band called Be Bop Deluxe, that are like a glam band. British kind of glam rock band in the '70s and '80s. But they put out a few records and then he's put out so many solo records on his own and he has one that's called The Love That Whirls, I think it came out in like '82 or something. It's amazing. He started off as kind of a guitar virtuoso, but he ended up getting way more into electronic music and synthesizers, music and so most. Most of the record is synths, so I guess you would call it synthpop. It's just good. There's some whiffs of Bowie and it also has a lot in common with some other kind of like minimal stuff that was happening during that time. He's one of those people that not a lot of people know about and for how much music he's put out and how many cool projects he's had his hands in, I feel like more people should definitely know about him. So yeah, that's one record that I would recommend for sure.